American Sociological Association

Flexibility in the Absence of Bargaining Power: The Consequences for Work-Life Balance

September 15, 2016

by Alex J Wood

‘I had to change hours. . . I felt really sick, it just hit me, it hit all of us.’ These are the words that Colin used to describe the painful reality of workplace temporal flexibility for many workers. And it is an experience which is becoming increasingly common.

In the US, economists Lonnie Golden found that 28% of workers report having schedules with variable start and end times. A similar situation exists in Europe where around 35% of workers report facing changes in their work schedule.

The growth of flexible scheduling has caused significant public debate in UK. In particular, the growth of zero hour contracts, a form of employment which does not guarantee any hours of work, figured prominently in the 2015 general election. Labour party leader Ed Miliband coined the term ‘zero-zero Britain’ to highlight the unfairness of a ‘recovery’ in which the ‘rich paid zero tax while the poor received zero hours contracts’.

In response to such criticism the UK government drew upon think tank research to argue that such flexible scheduling was actually a good for workers, enabling them to ‘flex their work… [and thus be] more satisfied with their work life balance.’

In a recently published ethnographic study, I sought to evaluate whether such flexible employment could truly be considered beneficial for work-life balance.

The study focused upon a large UK retailer, anonymised as ShopPLC, and included observation of union representatives training and organising over the course of a year. I also undertook two months’ employment as a shelf stacker. I also conducted 39 interviews with hourly paid employees and union officials. Retail was chosen as it makes significant use of flexible scheduling and is also the sector which sparked the controversy surrounding zero hour contracts.

Temporal flexibility represents a novel form of firm flexibility

The fieldwork revealed that although ShopPLC did not use zero hour contracts it was able to achieve temporal flexibility by utilizing a number of different employment practices. These entailed:

  • Frequent ‘labour matching reviews’ whereby workers on standard contracts would have their contracted hours altered to better match demand
  • ‘Flexi contracts’ which provided workers with as few as 7.5 core hours per week but were ‘flexed’ up with unpredictable and non-refusable additional hours
  • ‘Short hour contracts’ which guaranteed workers as few as 4.5 hours a week but usually entailed extensive irregular ad-hoc overtime (paid at the standard rate)

In sum, working time at ShopPLC was found to be highly flexible and this flexibility to be driven be changes in demand. Firm flexibility was not confined to atypical forms of employment and was evident across employment statuses. Standard core hours were altered through labor matching, while the use of short hour contracts meant that highly variable additional hours were an important feature of part-time and flexible employment. Moreover, these new temporally flexible employment practices, flexi-contracts, flexed-time and short hour contracts, were introduced as means of reducing reliance upon the costly numerical flexibility provided by temporary and agency workers.

Manager-Controlled Flexibility Damages Job Quality

The high levels of temporal flexibility at ShopPLC were found to damage job quality. Flexible scheduling left workers unable to achieve work-life balance, impairing their ability to plan and negatively impacting family life and child care responsibilities. An illustrative experience is provided by Sara:

‘Now that Paul [another ShopPLC worker] is living with me, we’ve set aside Saturday as a day to do something – me, Paul and my son – as a family . . . she [Sara’s manager] now wants me to work Saturdays . . . it’s all up in the air.’

These harmful effects can be understood by recognizing the important distinction which psychologists Julie Henly and colleagues draw between manager-controlled flexible scheduling and worker-controlled flexible scheduling. In the case of ShopPLC flexibility was driven by the managers’ need to contain costs by tightly matching labor to demand.

Workers had little ability to influence the manner in which alterations were made to their schedules. This was despite the presence of a union and collective bargaining. Workers were heavily dependent upon ShopPLC, perceiving themselves as having few labor market alternatives along with limited savings. Moreover, they lacked in-demand scarce skills.

There was thus widespread fear that resisting changes would result in victimization and even dismissal. It was widely felt that timid workers were targeted for schedule alterations.

The collective agreement did little to support the intervention on behalf of fearful workers. In fact, union reps were essentially limited to helping workers file individual grievances – something which workers were largely unwilling to do. Moreover, reps had internalized the ‘partnership’ values of the collective agreement and saw their role as ‘balancing the needs of the business with the needs of the worker’ and thus getting workers into a ‘mindset’ whereby they acquiesce to changes.

The Experiences of Low-End Flexible Workers are Misrepresented

The findings demonstrate that in the contemporary low-end flexible workplace, in which flexibility is achieved through generalized temporal flexibility, job quality is likely to suffer.

It would seem that the advocates of flexibility are conceptually confusing worker-controlled flexible scheduling, usually implemented to retain high-end professionals, with the manager-controlled flexible scheduling experienced by low-end workers. This means that the positive effects of worker-controlled flexible scheduling are being misleadingly presented as evidence of the benefits of manager-controlled flexible scheduling for low-end workers.

When flexibility is introduced to contain costs and workers lack significant bargaining power it seems unlikely that flexible scheduling will enable better work-life balance, and in the my study, flexible scheduling led to a deterioration in work-life balance.


Alex J Wood is a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, UK. This article summarizes research published in “Flexible scheduling, degradation of job quality and barriers to collective voice,” Human Relations.

This article was originally published in Work in Progress, the blog of the ASA Sections on Labor and Labor Movements and Organizations, Occupations and Work.

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