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Whatever Happened to Flextime?

By helaineo |

Remember flextime?

Flextime was the much-ballyhooed benefit that was supposed to make life easier for working moms (not to mention anyone else who wanted a life outside the office) by allowing them to arrange their own workday schedules. Work-life consultants argued companies offering flextime to moms were going to benefit by not losing the labor of women who might otherwise decide to leave the workforce for the home front when they had children.

It sure sounded great. There was only one problem: many companies, it seemed, didn’t care for flextime so much.

A study released yesterday by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reveals that the number of employers offering their employees flextime has plunged along with the American employment rate. According to SHRM, only 49% of all companies now offer employees the option of setting their own work-times, a decrease of five percent from last year.

Even more worrisome, however, the SHRM survey data reveals that the number of firms offering flextime has been declining for most of the previous decade, after peaking at almost two-thirds in 2002.

What happened? After all, some work-consultants actually argued that the current downturn would actually boost the cause of flextime, as employers would seek to offer their staff the flexible scheduling in lieu of salary increases, or even as an inducement to take a wage cut. It obviously didn’t work out that way.

Mark Schmidt, SHRM’s director of research, speculated to Sue Shellenbarger at the Wall Street Journal that layoffs in the financial services industry, where he claims the concept of flextime made inroads into the corporate culture, might have impacted this year’s number. I disagree. First, the financial sector is famed for its insane work hours. If those employers offered flextime, they weren’t actually expecting anyone to take them up on it.

Instead, the answer to the mystery of what killed flextime is right in the numbers. Once again, the number of firms offering employees the do-it-yourself scheduling perk began to decline in 2003, even as the economy was percolating quite nicely indeed. Why? Well, over the course of the naughties or the aughts or whatever you want to call the first decade of the 21st century, the culture of work intensified, especially for the upper middle class professionals most likely to be offered flexible working arrangements. Surveyors found prior to the start of the Great Recession in 2007, more than forty percent of employers were on the job more than fifty hours a week.

Things have only gotten worse since then. Productivity has surged in the past year, something most analysts attribute to companies working their remaining workers harder than ever. Employees, in turn, have very little leverage since, after all, there are now between five and six unemployed people for every job opening.  As a result, we either work under the conditions management would like, or we are likely to not be working at all. Not surprisingly, the SHRM survey also reveals falling rates of everything from corporate paid family leave to casual Friday’s at the office. Companies no longer have to make work fun to keep their employees at their desks.

So what do you think? Have you ever worked under flextime arrangement? And do you believe world of work has become more or less flexible since the current downturn began?

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About helaineo



Helaine Olen's writing has been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal,, and, where she is an associate editor. Her first book, Office Mate: The Guide to Finding True Love on the Job will be published this fall. She lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

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10 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Flextime?

  1. jenny tries too hard says:

    I hate the term flextime. Some fields can be really flexible, and just give employees a deadline, not caring whether the employee works 4am-7am and 1pm-3pm and 7-9pm as long as the work gets done, but that’s not the case for A LOT of fields. Really, most jobs require that for every “flex” in one employee’s schedule, there must be an equal and opposite “flex” in another employee’s or client’s schedule…so, not particularly practical. Yes, employees can give some leeway when it comes to schedules, but if you have an actual brick-and-mortar business that isn’t operating round the clock already, you do have certain fairly rigid guidelines for when the work inside has to be done.

    It also seems flat-out silly that a “work consultant” was claiming that flextime would increase in a downturn. Right now, the employers have the upper hand; they aren’t bending over backwards to keep any but the best employees because they know that the employees are aware of how hard it would be to find another job.

  2. diera says:

    I work at a company that allows flextime and it’s sort of a mixed blessing. It’s great on a personal level when I can take an afternoon off and make it up in the evening when I need to, but at the same time it means half the time I can’t find the person I need when I need them because *they’re* taking the afternoon off and planning to make it up that evening. It makes life with kids a little easier but I can see why employers wouldn’t like it, it makes things less efficient.

  3. bob says:

    My employer ‘offers’ flex time — if your supervisor agrees that your job is flexible. Few will.

  4. puasamanda says:

    I worked for a company that allowed for a sort of flex-time among all employees, but it was arranged thus: You could come to work at anytime between 6:00am and 9:00am, and your day ended nine hours after that as long as overtime was not required (determined on an “as needed” basis). The reality of it was that the majority of the 350+ people employed there (and I used to do internal audits of policy, so I’m not just guessing here) came to work at 6:00am, because leaving at 3:00 was freaking awesome :) It was somewhere around 80% – which left the remaining workforce a bit challenged between 3:00pm and 6:00pm, because oftentimes, entire departments were already gone for the day. I worked there for five years, and about halfway through, the policy was tweaked to exclude certain key employees. Department heads, shipping/receiving, and reception were excluded, for example. It wasn’t “true” flex time, but it did turn out to be a fairly workable way of letting people choose the most convenient time (within certain limits) to be at work. As a mildly interesting note, the flex occurred almost exclusively along gender lines. The women who were mothers almost universally chose to come in at 9:00am, after they had gotten their kids up and ready for the day. The men who were fathers almost universally wanted to be in as early as they could so they could be with their families for as long as possible after work. It was a male-dominated field, which accounted for the 80% rate of people using the earliest slot. We had a few married couples who worked there together, and every one arranged it so dad would come in in the early slot, and mom stayed home to get the kids to school/daycare, coming in to work as late as possible.

  5. [...] Whatever Happened to Flextime? [...]

  6. [...] doesn’t encourage a healthy work-life balance. Sure, there are some jobs that allow for flextime or telecommuting, but especially during a recession, most people are reluctant to push their luck [...]

  7. [...] Babble’s Strollerderby blog responds to the SHRM report by asking “What Happened to Flextime?” [...]

  8. Emily says:

    Yes, I am a telecommuter and my organization supports it for a number of employees. I think the smart employers who can embrace their workforce and see that flextime is an important part of retaining and recruiting employees are the winners in this economy. I understand the argument that in a down economy, competition is fierce and the strongest survive, but I don’t believe that has to mean face time in the office only. I think if employees produce excellent work, they can demonstrate their value despite being in the office every day or at least 8 hours a day. It’s interesting to take a moment also and observe how many people are still commuting to work in their car, alone. Another issue we are waking up to globally is the diminishing resources we have, and so the arduous commutes are not only stress producing for employees but actually aren’t doing much for moving beyond our addiction to fossil fuels. Change is hard, and sometimes it’s a slow moving ship, but this ship has left dock and I see telecommuting and flextime something that will only gain momentum in the future, albeit with some fits and starts. – Emily @

  9. [...] for each open position, they can likely find that person. After all, rates of everything from flextime to telecommuting have plunged in the past few years, as companies have found they don’t need to meet the needs [...]

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