Why flextime can backfire

RESEARCH/Giving workers access to onsite childcare and flextime may actually make them less satisfied with their jobs. A Wharton management prof explains why.

Do work-family policies make workers happy? Not always

We all have different ways of coping with the many roles life throws our way. Some of us blur the edges of family life and work, typing reports on a laptop on the train, taking cell phone conference calls from our kid’s soccer practice. Others keep the margins more distinct, starting the workday early, for example, so we can leave the office behind mid-afternoon and switch off all thoughts of work until the next day.

If you prefer to blur, you’re an integrator. If you like to separate, you’re a segmentor.

And according to Nancy Rothbard, an assistant professor of management at Wharton, you’ll be happiest in your job if your employer’s policies support your personal preference for managing work/family identities.

Rothbard, with colleagues from Northwestern University and George Washington University, surveyed 460 employees at a large public university and found—in line with their hypothesis—that integrators appreciate options like onsite childcare that allow them to literally bring their home life to work, while segmentors value the possibility of flextime with its clear work/nonwork boundaries. More surprising was their finding that the mere presence of options that don’t fit with a person’s value system can make them less satisfied with their job.

“It’s not about usage,” says Rothbard. “It’s about the message.” Offering an “integrating” policy like onsite childcare sends a message about the culture of the organization that will not sit well with an employee who wants to keep their job/family boundaries clear-cut. Even if the employee declines to use the childcare, others are likely to be using it and talking about it and in that way a strong message is broadcast that the company wants employees to see work and family as a continuum rather than two separate universes. “It acts on your psyche, just knowing it exists,” says Rothbard.

Integrators, Rothbard discovered, were more resilient and less put off by the presence of a policy they chose not to use. As long as they had access to an option that helped them make their lives more seamless, they were not hurt or offended by the existence of segmenting policies like flextime.

Rothbard notes that the term “flextime” is counter intuitive, since it suggests integration whereas it actually promotes the opposite. The policy is valuable, she says, because it cuts off the “3 o’clock syndrome,” when employees are still sitting at their desks but distracted by calls home to check on children back from school. “Time and attention are different things,” she notes, and allowing an employee to come in early and leave at 3, means they are more likely to be focused during the hours they are at work.

Organizations tend to want employees to be integrators, because they think they will get more out of their workers that way, but according to Rothbard this is problematic. “They think by keeping them at work longer they’ll be more committed, but having their focused engagement while they are there is better. There is a huge tension in organizations and a misunderstanding of the kind of engagement we need from workers. It’s not just time. They can spend twice as much time but have less creativity.”

The other main message for companies, says Rothbard, is that adopting policies designed to help people balance their work and nonwork lives can easily backfire. “As a company, you need to think carefully about the values you’re communicating.”

Now Rothbard is interested in finding out what situations make people more likely to want to integrate or segment. “It’s not just parents who want flextime. It’s also being used by other groups of people with really important hobbies … who belong to a community orchestra or do eldercare, for example.” And in their sample, which included 13 job categories, Rothbard found integrators and segmentors in each category, “so it’s not necessarily the job.” She concedes, though, that academics may tend more toward the integrating side. Or at least, she does. With two children under the age of three and students who email her at all hours, she says, “it’s the only way I can manage.”

Nancy Rothbard