Flexibility in the Workplace?

What kind of workplace do you want? Should your workplace experience be determined by regulations, or instead be negotiated between you and your employer?

A recent survey sheds interesting light on what people love, and hate, about their workplaces. They survey, carried out by Wakefield Research for Citrix, produced lots of interesting tidbits. For example, among male workers, the part of office life they secretly hate most is office baby showers. 32 percent of workers would give up their lunch breaks in exchange for the chance to work at home just one day per week. Oh, and 7% of workers, when given the chance to work from home, prefer to work in their underwear or in the nude. And so on.

Citrix is an internet and cloud computing company, so naturally the take-away lesson they suggest has to do with the advantages of telecommuting, and in particular with the desirability of employers offering employees the flexibility to work, at least occasionally, from home.

But the question of flexibility arises at more that one level. It arises at the level of what employers offer employees — will they offer employees the flexibility to work from home occasionally if they choose? It also arises at the level of employers: should employers have the option to either offer such flexibility or not, or should all employers be required to offer the same kinds of flexibility? In other words, should there be a firm rule (entrenched in either law or regulation) requiring employers to offer such options?

More generally, what elements of work life ought to be regulated to the point of being standardized? And which elements ought to be up to employers and employees to sort out? The generic argument for uniformity is reasonably clear: people are people, and ought generally to be treated in similar ways regardless of where they work.

But there are also arguments for diversity in employment arrangements. Most obviously, there’s an argument based in the importance of freedom of choice. Why should everyone be forced to work under one set of circumstances? Shouldn’t the terms of the employment contract be a matter of free negotiation — within broad limits, perhaps defined in terms of fundamental human rights — between employer and employee?

But customization of workplace experience also holds the promise of better outcomes, at least in theory, because different workers likely want and value different things in a workplace. And there will always be tradeoffs. Some may prefer a workplace that rewards long hours with high pay. Others may prefer “good” pay in return for “reasonable” hours. Some may want to work in a close-knit team that works and plays together, while another may prefer a strict separation of work and pleasure. In this sense, a workplace is a product like any other, one that we “buy” with our labour. And, as with food or anything else, different people will want different things. If you can find ways to give more people what they want, you’ve done a good thing.

I find this a useful way of framing questions related to employment standards. For any given question, we should ask: is this something that we need to legislate into regularity, or something on which we need to allow diversity? If the former, then we’re faced with the hard challenge of figuring out what the single best standard is for all to follow. If the latter, then the challenge is to figure out how to make sure that the choices employees make are free and informed.

How can we decide which category a particular workplace issue falls into? That’s the hard part. It’s tempting, philosophically, to say that we just need to figure out whether the issue at hand is an issue with regard to which rational argumentation seems to lead to a single solution. But whether a single, clear answer is available is itself something over which people can disagree. Closer to the truth is that what we need to do is figure out whether the gains made by enforcing regularity are sufficient to outweigh the positive outcomes that come from a tailored workplace experience.

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