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Conundrum: One Person’s Flex Job is Another’s Underemployment

Last week I co-presented a session at the Working Mother Flexibility Leadership Conference entitled, “Flexibility is the Answer When Rightsizing is the Question.”  We explained how to use strategic flexibility (e.g. flexible scheduling, reduced schedules, furloughs, compressed workweeks, telecommuting) to manage costs and minimize job cuts in response to a business downturn.  

Last week I co-presented a session at the Working Mother Flexibility Leadership Conference entitled, “Flexibility is the Answer When Rightsizing is the Question.”  We explained how to use strategic flexibility (e.g. flexible scheduling, reduced schedules, furloughs, compressed workweeks, telecommuting) to manage costs and minimize job cuts in response to a business downturn.

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In the presentation, I emphasized that it was important to focus on all of the broad benefits of strategic flexibility beyond just minimizing layoffs and managing costs. This includes increased engagement, healthier employees, expanded global client coverage, improved sustainability, and individual work+life fit.  Why?  Because the reality is, depending upon your vantage point, the same flexibility can be seen either as a blessing or a curse.

One person’s reduced schedule that allows him to care for his aging parent is another individual’s bitter recession concession that keeps him from working full-time.  One person’s contract employment provides challenge and freedom, but to someone else it’s an endless series of “gigs” that they would trade in a minute for a full-time job with benefits

Employers and employees face a difficult conundrum.  In today’s global economy, rapid change is reality.  Business operating models need to respond more creatively and flexibly.  The same is true for individual employee work+life fit.  We need more flexibility to manage our work and lives but we also need to be agile in navigating a more flexible career path that could include periods of full-time employment, reduced hours, layoffs, contract work and career breaks.

How do we resolve the need for greater flexibility that both helps and hurts at the same time?

This stark dichotomy was presented in the recent BusinessWeek article, “The Disposable Worker.”  The article’s title sets the tone from the outset—flexibility is “bad.”  And for some of the people interviewed, it is negative.  They do feel disposable.  But for others, that same flexibility is what they want.  They don’t see themselves as disposable, but as a “Flexible Worker.”

There’s the contract-based call center employee who works out of her home.  She is paid by the minute and receives no benefits (bad), but is grateful for the opportunity because she lives in an area with high unemployment (bad or good?).  She also has a great deal of flexibility to care for her three children, one of whom is homeschooled (bad or good?).  Is she a disposable worker, or a flexible worker?  Depends upon the perspective.

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We also meet two white collar, contract employees.  One is a marketing executive-for-hire who loves the challenge and flexibility of contract-based assignment work.  The other is an attorney taking on overflow projects from other firms as he struggles to start up his own business after being laid off.  He has no benefits and is not happy about his situation.  Two people, the same flexibility. One loves it.  One doesn’t. 

And it’s not just individuals who can perceive the same flexibility from opposite perspectives.  Countries can.  At the start of the recession, I wrote a series of blog posts in Fast Company advocating a more flexible approach to downsizing that would minimize layoffs, retain talent and knowledge, and encourage innovation in preparation for a recovery (This series ultimately inspired the Flexibility Rightsizing Tool developed by a group of experts for AWLP/World at Work).

Unfortunately, most U.S. companies responded to the downturn with all-or-nothing job cuts.  But Europe, particularly Germany and France, were much quicker to take a more flexible approach.  And the benefits are beginning to show as presented in a recent New York Times article.  Industries in these countries instituted work-sharing programs that cut hours and save jobs. Companies tolerated the associated lower profit margins, used experienced employees to create innovative new products that they believe position them to grow when the economy turns around.  Contrast that to the impact of layoffs in the U.S. described in the BusinessWeek article where psychologists were brought in to two organizations because work had come to a standstill.

In other words, the same flexible response to the downturn that most U.S. companies rejected as bad, European countries embraced as essential.

So who’s right?  The white collar worker who relishes the independence of her contract-based employment?  Or the underemployed attorney who would like to work full-time for benefits?  The quick to cut, higher profit margin U.S.?  Or the quick to retain flexibly, lower profit margin Europeans?

Maybe it isn’t a matter of right or wrong, but what’s reality.  Ten years ago, someone working on a contract-basis or at a reduced schedule would have been a  “disposable” worker, but today these options are becoming part of an average person’s career path.

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Then the question becomes, how do we need to prepare differently?  How do we manage our personal finances to absorb these flexible shifts when they occur?  How do we navigate the different flexible realities to get the type of work+life fit we prefer at a particular time?

Right now we are still locked in an outdated, “I’m not successfully working if I’m not employed full-time, in an office everyday” paradigm.  Not so.  It’s important to note the a lack of health care makes this process more difficult in the U.S.  I consistently find it surprising that the greater flexibility of work hasn’t been a more prominent rationale for health care reform.

And it will be interesting to see which country’s economy does ultimately recover more quickly. Will Europe’s willingness to sacrifice profit for a period in order to retain talent and innovation trump the more profitable cut/hire rigidity of the U.S. response?

For employers, all types of flexibility in how, when and where work is done are foundational strategic levers for rapid response.  This includes being able to staff up and staff down quickly.  But perhaps an even more importantly how can they use of flexibility to develop and engage a motivated, innovative, healthy workforce?   Same flexibility, broad impacts.

Greater work+life flexibility in the way businesses operate and individual’s manage their work+life fit is here to stay.  The trick is to see both the positive and negative applications as part of the same whole, and adapt accordingly.

What do you think?

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