Most People Do NOT Want to Work Less, Just Differently

(Check out my Fast Company Blog: Flexibility Will NOT Hurt Customer Service)

When asked in the 2007 Work+Life Fit Reality Check, “If you could make changes in your work situation, what is the most important change you would make?” People’s top choice was “make more money” at 44%. Having some type of work-life flexibility was a close second with 35% saying this would be the most important change they would make.

Let’s look at the type of flexibility these individuals want. For the 35% whose priority was flexibility, 20% want to work differently, not less (13% of them want more flexible hours, and 7% want to work remotely). Of the remaining 15% who want to reduce their schedule, most (10%) want to work between one and ten hours less. Only 5% want a reduction greater than 10 hours per week. And, this percentage was the same for men and for women (5%).

Why does it matter? Because the findings challenge one of the major obstacles to flexibility within organizations. There is a knee-jerk assumption that flexibility means working less, and since we already don’t have enough people or time to get the work done, flexibility won’t work here.

But as the Reality Check data and my experience consistently reaffirm, most people don’t want to work less, they just want to work differently. And even those who do want a reduced schedule only want to work slightly less, between one and ten hours. In addition, there is a mountain of other research showing (for example, Families and Work Institute and Corporate Voices) that employees with flexibility are significantly more productive, loyal, and willing to go the extra mile. All in all, a net gain for employers. And, yet, this myth that “flexibility means working less” keeps them stuck.

The Reality Check findings seem to challenge those reported earlier this year by the Pew Research Center, which resulted in the headlines, “Most mothers want to work part-time.” But let’s look at the questions being asked in both surveys to see what they really say.

In the Pew study, people were asked, “What would be the ideal situation for you—working full-time, part-time, or not at all outside of the home?” The category “part-time” was undefined. Mothers were significantly more likely than fathers to say “part-time” would be the ideal. The Pew study included people who worked full-time, part-time, and those who didn’t work at all.

In the Reality Check, our results only included responses from 981 individuals currently working full-time, and the question was “What change would you make in your work situation?” We also tried to clarify what “part-time” means to people by offering two options: a slight reduction (1 to 10 hours), and a more significant reduction (over 10 hours). As noted above, when presented with these choices along with a number of other potential changes they could make, only 5% of men and women would chose to reduce their schedule by more than 10 hours a week.

What accounts for the difference in findings? First and foremost, there is a difference between “ideal” and reality. For most people in our sample who are already working full-time, the reality is they can’t afford to or don’t want to make less money. Reducing your schedule reduces the amount of money you make. This explains why the majority wants to work differently (e.g. flexible hours or telecommuting), which gives you the flexibility you need to deal with your personal responsibilities without working less. It also explains why if they wanted to reduce their schedule it would be by less than 10 hours. The impact on earnings isn’t as significant as it would be over 10 hours.

Bottom line: The debate about work-life flexibility at all levels—cultural, organizational, managerial, and individual—needs to be based on facts, not on assumptions. Yes, in an ideal world part-time work might be the ideal for individuals with high levels of personal care responsibilities. But the reality is that most people who already work full-time and want flexibility do not want to work less. They want to work differently. And if they do want to reduce their schedule, it isn’t by much.

Flexibility doesn’t mean, “less work.” It means changing where, when and/or how work is done in a way that benefits everyone.