Flexible work in the high-tech sector: does it really meet workers’ needs?

Flexible work arrangements are often regarded as a positive development. When employees can work from home or set their own hours, for instance, it appears to accommodate their needs. However, flexible work may also be associated with a lack of stability or security, which has been linked with poor health. To gain greater insight into this area, Dr. Ellen MacEachen, a scientist and sociologist at the Institute for Work & Health, conducted a study of flexible work in the high-tech sector. She and her colleagues interviewed managers and some employees at 30 software sales and service companies in southern Ontario.

One theme that emerged was that flexibility had, in a way, become a means to govern workers. While managers believed that flexibility gave employees greater independence and reduced stress, it also catered largely to the needs of the firm. Workers were expected to be available to meet deadlines in a highly competitive environment, and the concept of overtime didn’t exist. As one manager put it, ...because we are financially driven we say as long as we hit targets, certain targets, then people can do almost what they want to get to those targets. Whether they work 14 hours a day or whether they work six the next day, however it works out to be, we are very flexible in that way.

What appears to be a long leash is actually a short leash, says MacEachen. In these companies, which all had fewer than 300 employees, the line between home and work was also blurred. While flexibility was believed to promote work-life balance, MacEachen says, What we were seeing was that work always came first, and family was made to fit into work.

The high-tech sector is not required to register with the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB), Ontario’s workers’ compensation agency but can choose to do so. Many companies in the study opted not to have WSIB insurance, and it is unknown what the implications are. Because these employees were well-paid and accepted the long hours, one might question why these issues are relevant. But MacEachen points out, The work conditions they agree to set the tone for many other workers within related industries. This influence on the broader work culture, therefore, might extend to employees in less favourable circumstances – those who earn much less money, or those who can’t work 14-hour stretches, for example.

This type of study, which is called a qualitative study, is useful in investigating new and emerging areas of interest. This study, for instance, points to the fact that we don’t know the long-term health implications of intense working hours and job instability in such a competitive environment. MacEachen has presented her findings at several conferences, including the American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting in Boston last November.

Source: At Work, Issue 47, Winter 2007: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto