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Why Flexible Working Leads to (Self-)Exploitation
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Does flexible working really provide a better work-life balance?

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, flexible working has become the norm for many workers. This volume offers an original examination of flexible working using data from 30 European countries and drawing on studies conducted in Australia, the US and India. Rather than providing a better work-life balance, the book reveals how flexible working can lead to exploitation, which manifests differently for women and men, such as more care responsibilities or increased working hours.

Taking a critical stance, this book investigates the potential risks and benefits of flexible working and provides crucial policy recommendations for overcoming the negative consequences.

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In Chapter 5, we explored the issues around the manifestation of the subjectification of self – specifically around passion at work, and the issue of passion exploitation – to possibly explain why individuals are likely to overwork when working flexibly. The idea of how passion can lead you to work long hours when given more autonomy at work is generally based on the idea that you work longer hours to meet your goals, your passion. In other words, longer working hours is driven by your inner need to succeed and wanting to achieve a more positive notion of self and self-fulfilment. Flexibility stigma is different, although ultimately stemming from the same cause – the entrepreneurial self-culture and the ideal worker culture. It is embedded in guilt and the negative connotations of self when you fear that you have moved away from the ideal worker image or that you are not fulfilling it as rigorously as you should be. Flexibility stigma also stems from the assumptions of others of what flexible working can result in for different groups of workers, again shaped by societal norms such as gender norms and intensive parenting cultures.

Some scholars (Rudman and Mescher, 2013) argue that men are likely to experience double stigma when using flexible working arrangements for care purposes – namely, flexibility and femininity stigma. Flexible working for care purposes makes men be perceived as going against the ideal worker image and against the male-breadwinner image. However, as we discussed in Chapter 7, there are underlying assumptions behind men and women’s flexible working practices.

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Who doesn’t want to have the freedom to choose where to work and when to work? This seems like a no-brainer. As human beings, most, if not all of us, are naturally inclined to love having more control over our lives. Control over our work is bound to let us shape work around other demands of our lives, our family lives, our hobbies and other pursuits. It should potentially expand our leisure and let us enjoy our lives outside of work more. Right? Then why is it that the groups with the most control over their work, such as academics or software programmers, who are given the freedom to work whenever and wherever they wish, end up working excessive hours (Bothwell, 2018)?1 This book is about exactly this – the flexibility paradox – why freedom leads to even more self-exploitation – or to quote Orwell, ‘Freedom is Slavery’. Why when workers have more control over their work, they end up working all the time and everywhere. Why when workers get access to unlimited holidays, they end up taking less. Why despite the myth of academics getting three months off in summer, many academics end up struggling to spend even a fortnight on vacation.

This isn’t just about academics. As the later chapters (Chapter 5 to 7) will show, this is a phenomenon that cuts across a larger group of the population and resonate with many people.

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This chapter examines the definition of and the growing demand for flexible working. Flexible working is no longer a nice perk ring-fenced for higher-status workers, but a must-have many workers find essential. This is especially the case after the COVID-19 pandemic, which I will look into in greater detail in Chapter 10. In this chapter, I will focus mostly on the pre-pandemic developments of flexible working. The chapter also explores the extent to which governments have responded to the demand for more flexible working by examining some of the most recent legislative changes increasing workers’ right to work flexibly implemented across the world. Following this, some empirical data showing the trends in the provision and access to flexible working is provided using cross-national European data sets, accompanied by some data from other countries like the US. Based on this, what we see is that flexible working is growing when we look at developments in national legislation and company-level data. However, there is no clear evidence showing growth in workers’ access to flexible working when we examine data from the past couple of decades before the COVID-19 pandemic.

But before we go on, what exactly is flexible working? Flexible working can entail employees’ control over when, where and how much they work (Kelly et al, 2014; Chung and van der Lippe, 2020). There are different arrangements relating to employees’ control over when they work. Flexitime enables workers to alternate the starting and ending times of work.

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In the previous chapter, we examined the extent to which flexible working is widespread across the world. This chapter continues on from the previous chapter by examining why companies provide flexible working arrangements and who – which individuals – gets access to and uses flexible working. Through these analyses, this chapter aims to show that despite popular belief, provision of/access to flexible working may be still driven by performance-enhancing goals, rather than work-life balance or well-being goals. When examining who has access to flexible working arrangements, family and care demands of workers have limited explanatory power. Rather, it is better explained by the type of work carried out, the relative value the worker has – that is, their skill level, and position of seniority/power they carry, and in general how much performance outcomes employers can expect from these workers. This explains why disadvantaged workers, possibly with the most demand for such flexibility, are the least likely to gain access to such arrangements. This results in a rather polarised access to flexible working arrangements across the labour market. This chapter will look into these issues further. First, I explore the dual nature of flexible working – namely the different purposes it meets. I will then examine the theories explaining why employers provide flexible working arrangements. Finally, the chapter presents empirical evidence testing these theories, and reviews other already published work. This is done to argue that performance outcome goals may trump work-family goals when examining workers’ access to flexible working policies – depending on the flexible working arrangement in question.

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In the previous chapter, we explored the question whether or not flexible working is more of an arrangement used by employers to enhance performance outcomes mainly given to higher-status workers, or is more of a family-friendly arrangement as many assume (Osterman, 1995; Ortega, 2009). We concluded that although there is evidence that both family-friendly and performance/higher-status logics partially explain the provision and access to flexible working arrangements, the explanatory power of the latter was much stronger. Thus, flexible working is not actually necessarily provided to workers who need it most, but to workers in higher-skilled/paid occupations and taken up by those in stronger bargaining positions within the company. This chapter explores the question of the nature of flexible working, but this time, by looking at the outcomes of flexible working. More specifically, I will empirically examine whether flexible working helps workers relieve the conflict felt between work and family life (work-family conflict). If flexible working were to be provided for workers to better meet private life demands, it would help workers reduce the conflict felt between the demands coming from the two spheres, and increase workers’ satisfaction towards work-life balance. If flexible working does not result in enhancing workers’ work-life balance, this makes us re-evaluate the nature of flexible working and how it is implemented. Obviously, the goals of better work-life integration and increased work performance are not necessarily at odds with one another. Performance-enhancing flexible working may also help workers to shape work around private life demands, and family-friendly flexible working can benefit companies due to the improvement in workers’ well-being (Rapoport et al, 2002).

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This book set out to explore flexible working in a more critical way, asking the question whether flexible working actually provides positive outcomes for workers in terms of work-life balance, workers’ well-being and gender equality as many expect it to. The results of the previous chapters show that paradoxically rather than improving workers’ work-life balance, flexible working increased feelings of conflict between work and family. The reason behind this phenomenon was explained through the flexibility paradox, that flexible working can lead to further exploitation of workers’ labour. This exploitation pattern is gendered. Men expanded their employment hours, namely overtime hours, to fulfil their ideal worker and breadwinner masculine image. Women expanded their unpaid working hours, namely increased time spent on housework and childcare adhering to the social norms around their roles as caregivers. What is more, due to these gendered patterns of flexible working or more so the assumptions behind such patterns, women end up being penalised further when working flexibly despite the fact that they are also likely to work longer and harder on their paid work when working flexibly.

However, I have also shown that the take-up and outcomes of flexible working largely depends on the contexts in which it is used. The way we think about work, work-life balance, and gender roles, workers’ bargaining power and insecurity all help shape the outcomes of flexible working. The book also showed that as flexible working becomes more widely used, we see a shift in the attitudes towards flexible working – namely through the decline in flexibility stigma.

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In the previous chapter, we ended with a puzzle of if flexible working was commonly adopted by many companies and countries as a way to address the work-life balance demands of workers, why is it not helpful in reducing their work-family conflict? One major reason for this is because flexible working can lead to the spill-over of work-to-family and other spheres of life, resulting in workers working longer and harder. Several theories help us understand this phenomenon better, for example, the ‘autonomy-control paradox’ (Mazmanian et al, 2013; Putnam et al, 2014), the social exchange, enforced, and enabled intensification theory (Kelliher and Anderson, 2010), and the ‘entreployee’ theory (Pongratz and Voß, 2003) which we will examine in this chapter. Much of the exploration in understanding why the flexibility paradox happens has focused on the employer-employee relationship (Kelliher and Anderson, 2010), or the organisational/professional context (Pongratz and Voß, 2003; Mazmanian et al, 2013; Putnam et al, 2014). This chapter, and ultimately this book, contributes to the ongoing debate by exploring the larger societal context that drives the flexibility paradox – and later on, the gendered flexibility paradox (Chapter 7) and flexibility stigma (Chapter 8). More specifically, by drawing from Foucault’s theory of homo-economicus, subjectification and the subjugation of the individual (Foucault, 2010), I understand flexibility and ‘freedom’ at work as another example of how power in contemporary society has moved away from the disciplinary society to a society of control (Hardt and Negri, 2001).

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One of the key findings drawn from the previous chapter was that as flexible working becomes more widespread, people are less likely to hold stigmatised views against flexible workers, and it is less likely to lead to negative outcomes in terms of work-life balance. The results were based on cross-national studies which meant that although we do see strong associations we cannot guarantee the direction of the relationship (for example, which came first, stigma or prevalence of flexible working?). We also cannot be certain if the more widespread use of flexible working or changes in contexts are the real causes or if it has to do with something else we failed to observe.1 In other words, the question arises whether we would see positive changes to flexible working practices in countries like the UK and the US if we were to change some of the contexts. These are difficult questions to answer given that cultures, policies and the take-up of flexible working do not usually change rapidly enough for us to properly answer them.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened and provided us with a very unique experimental opportunity to answer some of these difficult questions: What happens if a large group of workers starts working from home? How would this sudden rise of flexible working change stigmatised views towards flexible workers? How would this change the flexibility paradox patterns we have observed previously? How would this change the gender dynamics of the outcomes of flexible working?

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In the previous chapter, I examined a wide range of theoretical underpinnings of the flexibility paradox – namely when workers have more control over when and where they work, they may end up working harder and longer, and with work encroaching on other spheres of life. This chapter will provide a summary of evidence of this flexibility paradox from across the world. This includes my own original research with colleagues exploring the association between flexible working and overtime using longitudinal data from the UK and Germany. I also present findings looking at the association between flexible working and work spill-over examined using data across 30 European countries. Others’ work showing evidence of the flexibility paradox from across Europe, the US, India, China and other countries using both qualitative and quantitative methods are also presented. The results show that flexible working leads to work encroaching on other spheres of life not only in terms of the time spent actually working, but also thinking about work. However, as the latter part of this chapter shows, there are different variations across the population. Here I show that the flexibility paradox may depend on the workers’ gender, parental and occupational status. What is more, the way in which flexible working is introduced may also matter. The final points open up for Chapter 7 where I elaborate further how the self-exploitation patterns of the flexibility paradox may look very different for men and women. It further opens up questions for Chapter 9 which explores the importance of contexts.

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