Work-life flexibility policies: a conversation with Dr Ellen Kossek podcast

In this compelling episode, host Thomas Felix Creighton sits down with Dr Ellen Ernst Kossek, a distinguished social scientist specialising in work-family and employment issues. Together, they delve into the dynamic realm of work-life flexibility, shedding light on the evolving relationship between professional and personal life, particularly under the influence of the pandemic's teleworking surge.

Dr Kossek discusses the transformation of traditional work arrangements into more nuanced, intersectional models, including flex time, teleworking, and part-time work, highlighting the need for workplace cultures that foster well-being and hope.

The conversation also explores the blurring boundaries between work and home life in the digital age, emphasising the significance of effectively managing these overlaps. Dr Kossek critiques the prevailing inequalities in accessing work-life flexibility, disproportionately affecting various demographics, and advocates for inclusive, intersectional approaches to address these disparities. Looking forward, she envisions a range of employer responses to the growing demand for flexible work arrangements, from full adoption to more conservative stances.

Dr Kossel’s insights suggest that integrating work-life flexibility into talent management could lead to higher productivity and give companies a competitive edge, marking a crucial step forward in understanding and navigating the complexities of modern work-life balance.

The article Work-life Flexibility Policies: Moving from Traditional Views Toward Work-life Intersectionality Considerations is available fully open access.

Speaker profile

Ellen Ernst Kossek is the Basil S. Turner Distinguished Professor of Management in the Daniels School of Business at Purdue University. She received her Ph.D. in organisational behaviour from Yale University.

Recognised as one of the seminal work-family researchers in the management field, she was the first elected President of the Work-Family Research Network. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Management, the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology and the American Psychological Association.

Her research has won multiple awards for scholarly, teaching, and practical impact as well as for mentoring students and working with organisations on evidence-based solutions. She has published in top management and psychological journals (e.g. AMJ, JAP, AOM Annals, JOM) and the business press (HBR, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times). She has received funding from NIH, NSF, Alfred P. Sloan, Russell Sage and Gerber Foundations.

Her research interests, include field experiments and management training interventions, targeting leader, team, and organisational support of work–family–personal life relationships, workplace flexibility, work digitalisation, remote work and work–life boundaries, and often involve issues related to diversity and gender equity, and policy innovation. Prior to becoming a professor, worked for major business corporations on strategic human resource issues in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

In this episode:

  • How has the digital age influenced traditional boundaries between work and home?
  • How have flexible work arrangements evolved in recent years?
  • How did the pandemic impact work-life balance?
  • Why is it important to consider intersectional factors such as family status, gender, and race when addressing work-life flexibility?
  • What are the potential future trends in how employers might respond to the growing demand for work-life flexibility?

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Work-life flexibility policies: a conversation with Dr Ellen Kossek

Thomas Felix Creighton (TFC): Hello, welcome to the Emerald Podcast Series. My name is Thomas and my guest today is Dr Ellen Ernst Kossek a leading U.S. social scientist and thought leader on work family and employment issues. She studies how people, managers and organisations can improve workplace cultures and the effectiveness of work family policies to foster well-being, work and hope. She has a Basil S. Turner Distinguished Professor at Purdue University's Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. School of Business and the coauthor of Work-life Flexibility Policies: Moving from Traditional Views Toward Work-life Intersectionality Considerations along with Brenda A. Lautsch, Matthew B. Perrigino, Jeffrey H. Greenhaus and Tarani J. Merriweather the article is available open access from Emerald.

Okay, thank you very, very much for joining me. You wrote a very, very interesting article on work-life flexibility. So, to start with a more difficult question, what is work life and maybe what is work life flexibility. Work

Ellen Kossek (EK): Life is the relationship between your work roles and your personal life or nonwork roles. And yes, work is part of life. But as we saw during the pandemic, increasingly, they may feel like one if you're teleworking at home, and teleworking is one form of flexibility. And I think one of the hard things now with the digitalisation of work. And I recently gave a talk at the digitisation of Working Life Center at University of Sussex, that people are really trying to manage boundaries, between work and home. So flexibility, originally work life flexibility was thought of as things like flex time, telework, part time work, working for 10 hour days instead of five days a week. And they were thought of as alternative work arrangement policies. They started with, in some cases where women wanted to work or reduce load or have flex time to care for children. But it's been used by workers in all different occupations. We see in hospitals, such as NHS in the UK, doctors wanting to work 3-12 hour shifts. And so it's really grown as a alternative way of working and really the new normal is working. Alternatively, everybody's working a customised work shift. And one of the things we did with the article that we did for Emerald, which is on moving from traditional approaches on work life flexibility to intersectional approaches, is we also linked the idea permeability or when you're connected to work or nonwork, is another form of work life flexibility. In the traditional literature they kind of the people who study work, virtual work and remote work are in one camp, and they're looking at how you're using email texts, which devices you're using. Are you distributed globally, across borders? How connected are you constantly to a device for communications, and they kept that separate from these other flexibility forms. But really, we're increasingly using multiple forms of flexibility at one time, and our smartphones, and the ability to work anywhere, anytime. Even if you are a frontline worker who works face to face, you likely have a smartphone on you or near you, or your employer makes you manage it to lock it up when you come in to work as I learned studying retail workers. So there, I really look at these as all forms of flexibility and how you really simply put work life flexibility is how you're using in this case policies from your employer to or the government hit right in the UK, you have the right to request a flexible schedule, how you're using flexibility to manage the boundaries of your work role.

TFC: And you mentioned the boundaries and the article goes into a number of different types of boundaries. Would you mind telling us a little bit more about that?

EK: Yes. So boundaries. Used to be pretty clear when you were at work or at home because you would travel and go work at an office where everybody worked on site or all work in a manufacturing plant or a hospital. But now Are there increasingly parts of our jobs or whole jobs that are done remotely? Or there's negotiation over even work schedules and the hours of work? So I know in the UK there are quite a lot of strikes because they one way that they're managing in some cases, transportation is there understaffing as not having extra people. So people have forced overtime would that be would be an example of a boundary of your schedule. That's expanded. So, in another article published in the Journal of Management with some of the coauthors in this article, Matthew Perrigino at City University of New York and Brenda Lautsch, and a Dean at Simon Fraser University in Canada, we thought about a way to think about boundaries holistically, because a lot of the literature's fragmented. So flextime could be thought of as boundaries over the timing of your work setting limits about when I'm available for work or not. And the idea of part time work be boundaries over the size or the amount of your work role. You want to reduce your hours, for example, telework, remote work or boundaries over location of your work, are you able to do it in multiple places. And then I've mentioned the idea of permeability, what is the boundaries of when you're expected to be connected to work, there are lots of jobs like social workers, doctors, people on call for it. And even when they're at home, they may have trouble setting work off, or returning work off. And the boundaries could go another way too. Can your family contact you at work to let you know that there was a problem at school today, and they're coming home early. So this is a contested terrain, increasingly, between employees and employers, and how to manage the boundaries of our work in relation to other parts of our lives.

TFC: It's really, really interesting. And it's an area that I understand has been changing quite rapidly over the last few years.

EK: Yes, and I think the pandemic brought it to a head, made it very transparent that there was an inequality, and people's access to work life flexibility, so our grocery workers or police or health care workers could not stay at home during the pandemic, they had to go on site putting themselves at risk and their families for perhaps getting sick or even dying. And then we had people at home that were professionals or admins and able to do some or all of their job at home. But I was, you know, in London that were in big cities or small apartments. So, some people were bringing our entire offices to home that was stressful for family, and friends. And then when you have domestic labor were kids, children were home from school. And people were then expected to take care of their kids and infant or managed school while doing their fulltime jobs that did have some gender disparities, where I did a study of women in STEM in the in the US on nearly 1000. And it kind of pushed a lot of STEM women to where they wanted to work, right. The narrative was women dropped out many people and dads too. And people with elder care wanted to work. But they ended up doing two jobs at once work intensification and generally burn people out it, we're still seeing some remnants of children being behind in school, and people now questioning their relationship to work and how central work should be in their lives. And I do think it's a little better in the UK than the US. And that you do have now growing number of policies like the right to request a flexible schedule where even though there might be a stigma to using it if you're in a high-powered job, you at least have permission to ask. And I think that is another trend where you have government trying to set up norms where workers are legislation where workers can ask for flexibility regardless of the reason let's not get into whether it's for you to go to the exercise because it makes your mental health better, which is a growing trend that we're dealing with that people are facing more and more mental health challenges are caring for people, for childcare for eldercare for your pet to shorten your commute so you only have to pay to go into work three times a week. Let's focus more on the work to be done. And and not care about where it is work is something you do not a place you go. And let's also try and help people to work longer, or be able to have variability in their career to stay in the labor force because our industrialised countries are going to have huge bankruptcy problems as social service programs become bankrupt because not as enough young people are working to pay for public sector pensions and things like that. I'm not interested in the flexibility where people have lack of job security gig workers, they don't get benefits. We're focusing in this talk about work life flexibility that helps people manage the relationship between work and non-work roles.

TFC: So, they're looking for some stability in people's lives?

EK: Stability and not be so one sided, that the employer says, here's the deal, you only do it, nor the employees can say, Oh, I'll only do this. I mean, you got to work on a team, you can't make it so hard for your boss to find you or your customers. And so I do think it has added a layer of complexity where some people are not able to regulate, you know, their attention and, and the focus when they're at work, or if they're working at home. And the same for employers. I've done some research where I've come up with a Respecting time off scale, because I think people are constantly negotiating, okay, tick tock, tick this call on my vacation, or it's Friday night at 6pm. I'm really looking forward to taking a break over the weekend. Yeah, we all know that we've seen people answer emails and texts that are work colleagues at night, over the weekend. And once again, if you are a single parent, or you, you know, have friends and want to connect with them, social connections are very important. You would like to have the flexibility to at least take a call or a text at work or call from your doctor. And you know, there's certain jobs where we're privileged where people can do that I can get an email anytime for text. But other jobs, people don't set their own schedule. So I think work life scheduling, staffing, this is how much work people work people's work hours, whether you could work remotely from an island in the Pacific, if you met the hours in London, everything is up for negotiation. And I see some employers, I just came from a conference out in east coast at Rutgers on women and hybrid work. Some employers are embracing flexibility and all these forms that they're in, some of them are pulling back and say, Oh, if we could only go back to the way it was before the pandemic, and wrote in saying if you want your job, you have to come in all the time, or we have inflexible flexibility, where you can, you know, have flexibility but only a one day a week, well, maybe that's not the day that you're, you know, parent teacher conferences at school, how does that help you for your child?

TFC: And you mentioned also the inequality so there’s gender inequality. There's also age education industry, there's a range of inequalities that exists today in flexible work.

EK: Yes. And in the article, I did for Emerald, the chapter that we just published, we think that there's this need to move toward intersectional approaches. And what do we mean by that? Well, intersectionality has been used traditionally with gender and race. And here we think intersectionality also might be the chance that you might be stigmatised, for using flexibility or be based on your family status, gender, race, and also, you might have less access, because to flex work life flexibility, a lot of the reports show that people of color, and women are tend to be clustered in the lower levels of the organisation and lower paid jobs, those jobs tend to have less access to flexibility. And as you become a professional and move on up, even if you're the supervisor of that airplane plant, you might be able to have more of a say of your hours or have someone to back you up, you know, the hospital attendant that's caring for you. And that, you know, has to be there all the time. And they have less of a say, over their schedule. And sometimes attendance policies are set up that if you miss work too much, you get fired. So we need to have a way for people to really have flexibility we need to be flexible and flexibility.

TFC: What are some creative approaches that companies have been able to use?

EK: Well, for the manufacturing, as I mentioned, one is through staffing levels to have an extra staffing person that can cover multiple jobs, because that builds in flexibility into your system. Another would be the idea of allowing workers to help manage their own schedule, through sanction shift trades. Now I've studied nursing homes. And there you have a patient acuity needs where you have two people certain types of training for the sickness of the client, the patient, so I can't just trade with you if I'm like trained in only one aspect of care, maybe basic care, but that's something for somebody with more severe illness. So, we also need to have literacy, have to train the work service and how to self-manage flexibility and trade off shifts. But I do think that will ultimately increase skill levels and flexibility in the organisation. So that’d be something to do with for frontline jobs. You can also give people more paid sick leave. And have replacement workers, it does get expensive. But for example, we hire a lot of nurses and doctors now they're going to be shortages when we hire people and pay a per diem because hiring levels are sometimes linked to the patient occupancy rates and hospitals and things. Now for people like who are professionals that could work in a laptop, anywhere, they are sort of the digital privileged class. But the thing that is challenging there is some people don't know how to telework well, at home. So, one thing I learned early on, was IBM once did a study that if you had a separate space for where you did your work, that was a really good way to set boundaries, even within your home, have a set routine for your physical, mental and psychological boundaries. The other thing is, we need to have some way that we don't burn people out and make them feel they have to choose between having a family getting married, having a relationship in their personal life. The real challenge for many organisations is they saw work life flexibility as just a benefit for working mothers, or when people need an individual what's called an ideal idiosyncratic deal with their boss. And we really need to mainstream this and say, here are the rules for how you can manage it with some parameters. Northern Trust, which is in London, I studied their groups in Chicago, and they were paying so much money for expensive downtown office space. So that's one thing that companies are trying to support these, sign these long term contracts for real estate, but Northern Trust, they migrated whole teams, they looked at the job and said, can this job be done off site? And if it was the the team would migrate together, so then you're not the only one working differently, and they set it up so that if you'd have to come into the office, at your choice, a day a week minimum, and then you'd have you'd have to go work at home, you had to have backup electricity, if something went out, your computer was a soft telephone. So people knew how to call you because I know I feel crazy calling people at home. So you gotta come up with new norms for work groups and teams. And don't put it just all on the manager to manage. Can I have Tuesday off, teams now have to be managing this flexibility? And that that takes more work?

TFC: Absolutely. I'm very interested. So you're saying it sounds like initially, the idea of flexible working has been pioneered by women in the workplace?

EK: I think I think so. I mean, there are probably other industries. You can look at like the Tavistock coal miners, I believe, was in the UK, they experimented with socio technical systems. And I think they went to through teams, you know, some alternative work hours or, you know, shorter work weeks. But it really started out as this idea of an accommodation, and you're more likely to give it to your best employees, right? What's hard is giving flexibility, more mainstreaming it to everyone. And then so I in this Harvard Business Review article I published called The Future of flexibility. I think it was published in 2022. And I mentioned it was picked as a best top 10 article for HBr must read for 2023 and reprint book, we started out with this sort of accommodation Mother, may I use flexibility? And you say, Oh, I don't want Sally to leave the workforce after our first baby. We'll we'll make a deal. Let's make a deal. And that's okay. But it's a special deal. And people are like, Well, Sally, is that really going to be executive level. And Mary who is not quite as good worker than Sally, but as solid, we're not going to give it to her. So it was really not very equal. And then we saw during the mobile workforce stage where like the IBM centers, the Deloitte, the Price Waterhouse Coopers, they went to a remote sales and professional workforce as a way to save on office space and have employees travel all over and work with the customer out of their homes. And that was actually more mail a lot of that. And they really learned how to do it. And I can say professors have had hybrid work for quite a while they teach and do their jobs so that people would work at home. But then we saw during the pandemic, or even before the pandemic, some people would maybe work long hours because of their identity, their professional identities are linked so much to their jobs. It's a way to keep flexibility, right? I want my boss to think I'm motivated. So that led to overwork cultures, long our cultures And then we saw during the pandemic, people were forced flexibility, which I don't call work life flexibility working out of their home, people were somewhat depressed because they were online all the time trying to do two jobs. I gave some talks to some corporations and one, there were a story of one woman saying the first day they were sent home after the pandemic, her autistic child was having a meltdown. And her boss kept texting her and calling her and she's like, Look, I can't do it now. And so we had to disclose things to our bosses about ourselves, there's electronic monitoring going on, sometimes into our homes, their privacy issues, maybe you don't want to see that I have a poster of a political person on my back wall, or what religion I am or what the ethnicity of my husband or children are. So I do think we were kind of in a new frontier of new rules. I do think it could also, though, if implemented in a way that doesn't stigmatise people, which was one of the ideas that we had, in this article about flexibility that there is more risk for certain groups use flexibility, it could lead to many people with disabilities, mental health concerns, could provide a lifeline for people to work longer and be in the workforce, if they can work from home or have the reduced hours in self-manage it. And I'm worried post pandemic, that some employers will say this is too much work to manage. Let's go back to everybody work the same hours the same way.

TFC: It's interesting, one of the traditional problems with a work from home, was that work not seen as not always valued. Right. So there's the the element of trust.

EK: Exactly, Thomas, and that is one challenge. Companies have not invested into training managers and employees how to manage performance, that depends on the nature of the work. And that's really wonderful question. Not all companies have thought about is how to embed flexibility, work life flexibility, into how they manage performance, how they select people, how teams work, client expectations, how we reap the benefits of flexibility, it's saving companies an awful lot of money, when people are working out of their homes, we wouldn't let people bring all their kids to work that would be saved money and childcare. It's not really fair.

TFC: I have worked for a company with a question, could we just have a crash? Well, why not? Why not.

EK: Using that with flexibility is a way to attract and keep a younger workforce. You know, it doesn't even have to be brick and mortars, I would like to see companies band together and train more licensed family daycare providers and help subsidise the pay for our child and healthcare workers. If flexibility is not just to care for people, but there are an awful lot of caregivers that need it, or in also self care. And we need to put more into having a bigger supply of caregivers or you've got to give people more flexibility. So if you put those two strategies together, the government and the companies that get it together to support this, they're going to have the edge mean, women are half of our university students, but they are not rising to the top of both of our organisations are very underrepresented in mid and senior levels, particularly in many STEM fields. This is really a problem. Though, the one type of flexibility companies do the worst job at is dealing with good part time and reduce load work because they don't like to define what is a full time load. Because exempt workers learn work as long as it takes and this might even be from the British, you know, work ethic Protestant, we're, you know, stuff work is never done, you can always do more and more and more. And we really do need to do a better job. And this is why unionisation is rising in some places of saying what is good quality, full time work. And then what is growing above and beyond.

TFC:  It is interesting, what our nine to five, you know, Monday to Friday workweek was set during the Industrial Revolution. Now with the information revolution, they're trying to come up with some kind of replacement.

EK: Exactly. And these models, you know, adapting it to these different types of industries where you're working with people across different time zones. In our HBR article, one of my colleagues who was originally from India, looked at how industrialised societies get the prime hours for when people in call centers or in other industries would be available. So somebody's up in the middle of night in India to answer call center for a rental car in the US. So you could also think about flexibility globally and how powerful nations that work hours of other nations that might get into their work life flexibility, demand.

TFC: I am curious on one point. You did mention that the importance of identity when people are choosing to work extra-long hours and so on some people work is very much part of their identity. Like you ask them, what are you and a lot of people just answer with their job.

EK: Exactly. And came up with an assessment, a leadership assessment called Flex Styles. And it manages how you manage interruptions between work and non-work. It clusters that to your identity, and your identity, many people see themselves as more work centric. Others see themselves as more family or non-work centric. And that used to be the assumption that if you were highly work centric, you couldn't possibly be highly non work centric. Many people today are dual centric, high and wanting to do well in their work role, and their non work role. And they see that they can't do both well, and so we're seeing people delay having children delay getting partnered, because companies don't make it easy to be dual centric anymore, you're all in all the time. And then the third aspect of this Flex Style: how you made interruptions between domains, what's your cluster of your identity, and then how how in control you are of your boundaries. And that can be due to your job design, that you don't have a lot of control, because your employer has all the power, it could also be due to your family design, maybe you are a single mother, maybe have a partner that is not involved very much in caregiving. So when problems happen, you're the one that's always deals with the babysitter doesn't show up, maybe you're less wealthy. So you're doing an hour and a half commute in London or wherever to get your job. These are all linked in some ways, to your identity, your wealth and your occupational status.

TFC: That's very, very interesting. And as we come slowly, towards the end of this interview, could ask how do you see this going forwards? We've seen some tremendous changes in the last few years, do you see that carrying on into the next few years?

TFC: Certainly, I think that there will be wide variation, and how employers respond to employees’ growing interest in need for work life flexibility, and how when and where they work, and how connectivity is managed over their life course. And I think there will be, you know, 20 to 30% might be high of employers that will embrace work life flexibility, whole hog, or at least give a lot of more latitude to workers who will be a middle hybrid work group that will say, We'll give you some flexibility, but you got to be in three or four days a week, you can't live three hours away from us. And that there might be other employees that say, as long as you're willing to come in and your own nickel, or pound or whatever your currency is few times a year, you can live forever. So there will be this fully remote group or fairly embrace remote group, there'll be a middle hybrid group. And then we're gonna go back to the traditionalists and say, you know, we set the hours Take it or leave it, you know, not very flexible at all. But given we're not giving lifelong job security to people anymore. Work Life flexibility is something that could make the difference to keep people in your company and in your occupation. And those employees that look at as part of talent management, and how to leverage it for improving their work processes. I think we'll have higher productivity, and we'll have competitive edge financially, and increase longevity. So, I didn't even mention about the 410 experiment that's going on in England, down by Brighton, where they're trying to see what happens there with for 10 work weeks, four days a week, 10 hours Exactly. But I've been doing a lot of experiments, randomised controlled trials, where in some cases, you have the new way of working done in one organisation, and you randomise, and another organisation does usual practice doesn't get it. And you compare, just like when you compare the COVID vaccine, who got it, who didn't, to see what the productivity and social effects are. I think that's where we have to go with it and improve the science of these. It's really a social science experiment, but the jury's still out and how to implement flexibility not just to the individual issue and org level but this multi-level interaction and that's really where research needs to go as well as practice.

TFC: Thank you for listening to today's episode for more information about our guest and for a transcript of today’s episode, please see our show notes on our website. I would like to thank Daniel Ridge for his help on today's episode, and Alex Jungius from This is Distorted. You've been listening to the Emerald podcast series.

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