Flexible work arrangements and their impact on work-family balance

4 Feb, 2016 - - @luiscornagob

In the last twenty years several influential texts have pointed out the change in contractual relationships that has occurred in the contemporary workplace. Authors like Sennet (2001), Beck (2000) or Cappelli (1999) agree that the period after the Second World War, marked by low levels of unemployment, growing wages and general improvements in terms and conditions has ended (Strangleman, 2007). Now this era is over and we are progressively moving towards a model based on shorter-term employment relationships.

Supporting this shift, Sennet argues that concepts typically used in the New Economy, like flexibility, decentralization, change, long-term commitment and teamwork have negative consequences on workers’ welfare that undermines their emotional and psychological well-being. Although he recognizes that old, routine work was the breeding ground for dissatisfaction and alienation, he believes that it also provided a comparatively high degree of stability, protection and certainty for those employed in such organizations (Blyton and Bacon, 2001). The increase in new types of non-standard employment along with the deterioration of working conditions leads Beck (2000) to consider that the concept of having a job for life has disappeared.

However, this thesis has been questioned by different academics over the years. In fact, most critics consider these ideas lacking in empirical evidence. One of the most well-founded criticisms was made by Sanford M. Jacobey (1999) in Are Career Jobs Headed for Extinction, where he maintains that “although employees today bear more risk, including risk of layoffs, there are still plenty of career-type jobs for educated workers, and employers still indemnify employees against many kinds of risk” (Jacobey, p. 125, 1999).

At the same time, within sociology and human resource management literature, many authors have found non-standard terms of employment, particularly flexible working arrangements, to be opportunities to improve employee reconciliation of work and family life (Glass & Estes, 1997) or even work and leisure (Pedersen & Lewis, 2012). Some of this literature has tried to demonstrate how flexi-time, part-time hours or working from home can help reach a more desirable work-family balance amongst employees and enhance organizational outcome  through lower staff turnover, reduced absence, and improved productivity.

It has to be said that one of the most outstanding, long-term trends in the labor market has been the increase in the proportion of parents at work (Evans, 2001). As a consequence there has been a successive rise in the proportion of dual-earner couples and of lone-parent families where the parent is working. Thus, either firms or state policies in most of the countries around the developed world have introduced to some extent these family-friendly work arrangements aiming to give an answer to the new postmateralist demands of society.

Firstly, in this text I aim to shed some light on the transference of skills that one can bring from work to family and vice versa. In this way, I challenge the commonplace concept that work and home life are in perpetual conflict and that one always damages the other. Secondly, I explore the conditions under which work-family enrichment is more likely to happen, considering, inter alia, the relevance of gender and political context. Throughout the course of the text other issues closely related to trends in human resource management, such as high commitment management, or the idea of employee engagement and job satisfaction, also become relevant.

An introduction to time scarcity: preferring work over family?

Since the 1970s with the publication of Coser’s (1974) classic Greedy Institutions, academic literature has focused on the “limitless demands large corporations place on the lives and commitments of their members, especially their relatively well-paid managerial and professional staffs” (Hodson, 2004, p. 2). Consequently, we can expect that the family-work balance has been also affected by this trend. For example, many works also refer to lack of time and feelings of busyness as main features of modern life (Lewis, 2003).

Although it seems like workers would have a negative reaction to the increase in firms’ standards for employee commitment, authors like Hochschild (1997) argue that many have ended up preferring work to home life. This is what Hodson (2004) calls the carrot explanation: people would rather focus their attention on work because of its appeal and potential in terms of social fulfillment.

Contrarily, others like Sennet (2001) recur to the stick explanation and do not agree with the voluntary nature of this choice. Sennett’s approach considers that in the post-Fordist economy people are compelled to get more involved in work because of the increase in possibility of being fired since flexibility and impermanence have become the norm.

Whether the workplace is winning the battle with family life because of its attractions or because of workers’ fears of losing their jobs, we cannot overlook that highly-paid workers, who are commonly high-skilled, and lower paid workers, who are commonly low-skilled have distinctively different connections to organizational cultures. As Hodson’s analysis shows, the level of pay is one of the main determinants of substantial social interactions at work. As a result being a highly-paid worker provides you with stronger work-based social networks whereas being a lower paid worker results in a weaker social life at work.

But the issue of high-skilled workers is not only about the strength of their social interactions at work. On the one hand, the organizational or work values associated with this type of worker along with the expectations placed on them by the employers makes them often go beyond the contract and increase their workload. One the other hand, as there is evidence that the public sector or larger firms are more likely to provide family-friends arrangements, we also know that “more highly-skilled workers, and those with longer tenures, tend to be offered more family-friendly benefits” (Evans, 2001, p. 5). In the same line, evidence suggests that college-educated fathers and mothers tend to spend more time with children than their lower counterparts (Gauthier et al. 2004). Thus we face a striking contradiction, where occupational values –linked to certain type of qualification or level of pay– go in one direction that prioritizes work over home while firms’ arrangements in the opposite,  affording employees the opportunity to improve the work-family conflict.

A theory of work-family enrichment

Thus far we have taken for granted the work-family time allocation as a trade-off that is in direct conflict. In fact, Greenhaus & Powell (2006) show that conflict perspective has dominated work-family literature. This view assumes “that individuals who participate in multiple roles (such as work and family) inevitably experience conflict and stress that detract from their quality of life” (Greenhaus & Powell, 2006, p.1).

These two authors try to challenge this approach by suggesting we pay more attention to the positive interdependencies between work and family. In short, their theory of work-family enrichment explores the conditions under which work and family roles are allies rather than enemies (Friedman & Greenhaus, 2000). Moreover, they contemplate work-family enrichment, like work-family conflict, to be bidirectional (work-to-family and family-to-work).  Work-family enrichment occurs when involvement in work provides benefits such as skill growth, or changing of mood to be more positive, which has a positive effect on the family. Family-work enrichment occurs when involvement within the family results in the creation of a positive mood, feeling of support, or feeling of success which can help that individual to cope better, more efficient, more confidence, or recharged for one’s role at work.

Their theory goes beyond the transfer of skills from work to family or vice versa. For instance, when “work contacts can exert influence to enhance one’s family life, such as when a powerful colleague uses his or her clout to help one’s child gain admission to a highly selective college” (Greenhaus & Powell, 2006, p. 10) we are also talking about a form of work-family enrichment. Therefore, we use enrichment as an umbrella term for all positive work–family interactions (Shockley & Singla, 2011).

According to Greenhaus and Powell’s theory we should also take into account the context in which work and family will be allies rather than enemies. In the first place, they refer to the impact of organizational, family, and community interventions. In second place, they highlight the relevance of political and socioeconomic context.

Other models of work-family facilitation, like those suggested by Wayne et al. (2007) explore some of the potential enablers of work-family facilitation. These enablers could be personal characteristics such as positive affectivity, and work-identity, or environmental resources such as enriched jobs, supportive work-family culture and job prestige. For example, in the case of enriched jobs, the authors turn to Hackman & Oldman’s job characteristics model to prove that skill variety, task identity, and task significance all make a contribution to experienced meaningfulness of one’s work and bring about benefits to one’s family. More specific elements of enriched jobs, like job autonomy have also been associated with higher marital quality and better parent-child interactions (Wayne et al. 2007).

A gender perspective

It is also relevant to investigate whether or not men and women have experienced similar levels of conflict between work and home. For authors like Wajcman (1996) the resemblances between them far outweigh differences. Contrarily, others argue that the differences are prominent and that women tend to incorporate to work more elements of their domestic lives into their work than man do (Lamphere, 1985; see in Hodson, 2004).

Freidman and Greenhaus (2000) suggest that men view work as a means to achieve and tend to emphasize money, status, and power; in contrast, women value growth, challenge, and the opportunity to care for others in their work. They also place emphasis on how men and woman use work resources differently. For example, they maintain that women value social relationships at work and utilize those relationships more for the betterment of their families than men do (Wayne et al. 2007). Consequently, we can say that men and women enablers of work-family spillover will have different intensity depending on the gender.

In most families today, childcare remains divided unequally between fathers and mothers. As Craig & Mullan (2011) show mothers’ workforce participation has not substantially decreased time they spend taking care of their children, and most mothers are still responsible for the bulk of family care. We cannot overlook that this has negative implications for employment opportunities for women and their own welfare. However, when talking about how work and care are divided, there are differences between families, depending on parents’ different values, resources, and opportunities (Coltrane 2007), along with policy differences between counties.

Ultimately, some commentators say women using family-friendly benefits risk being placed on the mommy-track, with lower career prospects (Evans, 2001). Implementation of equal and non transferable maternal and parental leave could help to put an end to the pregnancy or maternal leave penalty at work.

Therefore, after adding a different approach to the conflict perspective of the work and family relationship and showing the various forms of work-family enrichment, we can observe how the potential transfer of skills from work-to-family or vice versa will not take place automatically through flexible working arrangements; however, it will also be highly determined by other resources or variables like personal characteristics, gender or the supportive work-family culture of a specific firm.

High commitment management and family-friendly working arrangements

In recent years, many argue that the human resource management has been moving towards so-called high commitment management (Evans, 2001), that essentially implies stronger mutual commitment between employers and employees (Legge, 2004). As White et al. (2003) suggest that family-friendly arrangements are part of the high commitment management commonly practices. For the United States Osterman (1995) finds a link between family-friendly arrangements and a high commitment style of management in “which employers adopt a strategy of delegating higher levels of responsibility to employees” (Evans, 2001, p. 27).

The companies’ reasons for introducing family-friendly arrangements are diverse, but they usually aim to improve retention rates of valued staff that have family duties and increase staff morale, as well as increase job satisfaction and reduce stress (Evans, 2001; Legge, 2004). Furthermore, if we consider the development of human capital within an organisation a priority in today’s firms, family-friendly policies could help by promoting longer overall tenures (Mani, 2009).

However, there are other trends in the human resource management that can be counter-productive for establishing family-friendliness in firms. For example, increasing temporary employment contracts in some countries could produce a negative impact since these contract terms have less family-friendly policies. Other commentators suggest that the prominence of economic and accounting criteria in the management of companies is increasing. Following Evans (2001), these practices usually take a short-term approach, while some of the defenses of family-friendly working arrangements, such as the retention of staff after having children, seem more reasonable in a long-term view.

To sum up, I would like to add that what has been discussed here is merely a modest approach to an immense, complex, and ongoing discourse about work-family balance and its implications.  Despite this, we are able to reach some conservative conclusions. Firstly, we consider that work-family enrichment and the conflict perspective are not mutually exclusive; both of them have to be included when talking about work-family balance. Secondly, we conclude that despite family-friendly arrangements being decisive in improving work-family balance and conciliation, higher-educated workers will have more chances to benefit from them. Thirdly, we must recognize the need for further research on the conditions under which work and family roles are allies rather than enemies. Lastly, the fact that childcare remains divided unequally between fathers and mothers needs more attention. As Pablo Gracia showed in a recent post, for example, the Spanish working day has negative implications for work-family balance, more specifically for gender-equal division of childcare and its change should be open to discussion. Keeping these conclusions in mind, there is no doubt that trends in human resource management, such as the existence of non-standard forms of employment, high commitment management, or the increase of temporary employment contracts, are key issues that will impact work-family balance.


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