Fast Company: 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.

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.

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…(Click here for more)

6 thoughts on “Fast Company: Conundrum–One Person’s Flex Job is Another’s Underemployment

  1. As you point out, in the USA, all roads lead to health care. We do not full understand how deeply the idea of “benefits” (read health insurance) has traumatized the national capacity for work life flexibility, entrepreneurship and boldness. It’s bred entitlement, shut down our creativity. We are trained from day one, by our education system, the generations before us and an entire social system: “Get a good, steady job, settle down. Play safe. Be careful.”

    Isn’t the work life community’s dream to show people there are other ways? It certainly is for me. Frightening, maybe. But if we don’t embrace the flexible side of the disposable/flex worker debate, it will be forced upon most anyway. Advocacy at the policy level and from within organizations to make flexible options actually work is the next layer of the challenge.

    It is exciting to empower people to take charge and find the possibilities within and outside of the “system” – you are clearly doing that. Thank you Cali. Great piece.

  2. I second Chrysula’s comment. Uncouple health insurance from individual jobs (even if it’s financed by businesses) and the dynamic changes. Workers who would prefer higher hourly pay and more flexible hours could negotiate for that. Employers who would rather create a full-time or part-time role than hire a contractor for a particular position could do so. Job locked people could retire early, start businesses, or make their experience available to younger companies – which would improve the job market for everyone.

    1. Barbara, I couldn’t agree more. With health care reform stalled my hope is that perhaps the true rationale–the need to uncouple health coverage from work–takes center stage.

  3. I would love a part time/flexible job for balance in my life. I gave up on getting health insurance with my job years ago. I buy individual policies, stay healthy, and don’t get unnecessary tests. In order words, I only go to the doctor when I need it. So far this has worked for me. Because I am under less stress, I believe it keeps me healthier so I don’t need a lot of health care. Is there a resource for connecting people with good part time of flexible hour jobs?

    1. Kathy, there are resources out there, but they tend to be local. Where are you located and if I know of a resource happy to share!

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