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Study: Flexible Schedules Can Make Work-Life Balance Harder

Topics: Data & Research
Flexible schedules are popular with workers. But, could this kind of arrangement actually make finding solid work-life balance even more difficult?
flexible schedule
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Lots of different arrangements fall under the banner of flexible scheduling. In short, flexible schedules may give employees the option to vary their start and stop times, their workdays and even where they do their work. For example, an employee might work Sunday through Thursday, rather than a traditional workweek. Or, they might work from home three of those days and head into the office for the rest of the time.

Flexible schedules and telecommuting are increasingly common and popular. In part, this is because many workers believe that the arrangement could do wonders for their work-life balance. But, is this really the case? Does flexible scheduling really make it easier to find — and maintain — better work-life balance than a traditional schedule?

New research by the Hans Böckler Foundation, reported by The World Economic Forum, examined how flexible work arrangements play out in reality. Some of the results were surprising. This study found that men and women with children respond to flexible schedules differently. Both groups actually end up working more hours as a result of working flexibly.

Does Flexible Scheduling = Awesome Work-Life Balance?

work-life balance
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It seems to stand to reason that flexible scheduling could, and maybe even should, lead to better work-life balance. After all, being able to adjust your daily routine around family obligations, health matters, or anything else that springs up seems like it would be really helpful. Similarly, not having to commute each day would save time, and you’d be able to focus better without all of the distractions of the office. Right?

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Well, maybe not. Let’s check out four key takeaways from this recent study, which was based on interviews with 30,000 working parents in Germany over a 13-year period.

1. Flexible schedules correlate with overtime

Researchers found that parents ended up working overtime when they had a flexible schedule at work. Men with children put in an average of four hours of unpaid overtime per week when working in this way. Women with children and a flexible schedule put in an additional hour of overtime.

2. Women spend more time on childcare…

working parents
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Women with children spent more time attending to childcare duties when they worked flexibly. They added one and a half hours of childcare to their weekly routines when they had this type of schedule. When they worked from home, they averaged three additional hours per week.

3. …And Men don’t

For men, working a flexible schedule did not correlate with increased childcare time. In fact, working fathers with flexible schedules spent less time on childcare than those who worked traditional hours. Men who worked from home spent about the same amount of time attending to childcare responsibilities as those who worked in an office.

4. increased overtime hours, especially for men

wrong job
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Flexible scheduling is one thing. But, what about working from home? Are working parents better able to get all of their work done when they have this arrangement? Unfortunately, not so much, according to this study. Women, on average, worked an hour of overtime per week when working from home. And, men ended up investing an average of six unpaid overtime hours.

This study suggests that parents who work an alternative arrangement can expect it to change the way they spend their time. Researchers found that, as a general rule, men tended to put in more hours at work when they worked in this way. And, women tended to invest more time caring for children.

“Work flexibility helps make job and family more compatible, but it can simultaneously cement the classic role divisions between men and women, or even make them stronger,” Yvonne Lott, the study’s lead author, told the World Economic Forum.

While men invest more hours when working an alternative arrangement, things are even more complicated for women when they make the change, according to these results. They have something of a “double burden” in these circumstances, as they shoulder work as well as childcare responsibilities.

These findings are supported by other evidence. The latest stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on how much time parents in the U.S. spend on childcare is revealing. They found that fathers with a child under the age of 6 spend an average of 1.58 hours per day caring for them. Mothers of children of this age put in 2.68 hours. Fathers of children under the age of 18 spend an average of 1.04 hours per day on childcare while mothers with children this age put in 1.74 hours, on average.

The stats from the latest American Time Use Survey also highlight some discrepancies. They found that, on average, men spend a total of 1.41 hours per day on household responsibilities. This includes things like cleaning, food preparation, laundry and repairs. Women average 2.19 hours per day.

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Work-life balance is possible when working from home

high-paying work-from-home jobs
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This information can be used to our advantage. Illuminating these trends is the first step toward reversing them. We’ll be able to develop some ideas about how to do things differently as we learn more about how flexible work arrangements and working from home impact working parents.

Here are a few tips for finding work-life balance when working from home or working a flexible schedule:

  • Plan and re-plan – It pays to be intentional about your schedule when you work flexibly and/or from home. Things change, week to week, so get into the habit of adapting and adjusting your schedule as needed. Some find it helps to plan just a week at a time. Also, keep in mind that your plans will change and need to be adjusted along the way.
  • Have boundaries with friends and family It’s important for your loved ones to understand, right from the beginning, what this professional change really means for them. Are you available for long Tuesday brunches now? Probably not. Should you always be the one to run household errands now that you work from home? That wouldn’t be fair. Be careful not to overestimate the time and freedom you’ll have before you even get started. This will go a long way toward managing the expectations of your friends and family when you’re making this kind of a switch.
  • Get into detailed specifics with your employer – There are all different kinds of flexible work schedules available for employees these days. Before signing up for something, be sure to discuss, and negotiate, all of the specifics with your employer. Will you be expected to work certain hours if you work from home? Will you need to be there to answer last-minute phone calls, for example? How often should you communicate with your boss about your progress? What happens with your PTO or other benefits? All of these questions should be addressed and discussed before beginning a new arrangement. And, you might want to consider scheduling another meeting for a couple of months down the road. By then, you’ll surely have some new questions that will need to be addressed.
  • Communicate at home – It’s important to communicate with the people that you live with about your plans, your schedule, and your goals routinely when you work in an alternative way. This is especially true if you’re a parent. Making a flexible or work-from-home assignment work takes diligence and communication. This isn’t the kind of thing that can be set up during one conversation when you first decide to make the switch. You need to continually communicate with your partner about scheduling in order to keep things running smoothly. Consider setting up weekly dates to discuss what’s ahead.
  • Use signals – It’s absolutely essential to have a dedicated workspace if you’re going to be working from home, even part-time. Otherwise, your entire home could end up looking — and feeling — a bit like your office. You’ll be more efficient and happier if you have a place where you always do your work. A home office also allows you to send signals to your family about whether or not you’re working. When the door is closed, you’re working and should never be disturbed. They can send you an email, or maybe a text, if there’s an emergency. If it’s open, it’s OK to come in. Using signals like these will go a long way toward managing everything and limiting distractions.
  • Be realistic – One of the trickiest things about adjusting to a work-from-home or flexible schedule is managing expectations. Global Workplace Analytics found that 80 to 90 percent of the US workforce says they’d like to try telecommuting, at least part-time. But, the arrangement isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be. There are upsides and downsides to working this way. And, making a change doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have more time, less stress, or that you’ll work fewer hours. In fact, in many ways just the opposite could be true. Being realistic about the benefits and the challenges you’re likely to face can help to ease the transition.

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How do you find work-life balance when working a flexible schedule? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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