Potential Labor Supply and Flexible Work Options for All Workers: An Exploratory Essay

4. Some Arguments for and against Flexible Work Options

To accommodate special circumstances that may reduce or inhibit labor force participation rates of potential workers, work flexibility could help. Flexibility in work arrangements may take many forms. They may be grouped under either flexibility in the time of work or flexibility in the location of work. Some of the pros and cons concerning flexible work arrangements are briefly discussed below.
Flexibility in the time of work refers to part-time, flex-time, intermittent leave, or phased retirement (Christiansen, 2005; Pitt-Catsouphes & Smyer, 2006; Workplace Flexibility 2010). Work-time flexibility is a convenience or an accommodation many workers desire. Offering this type of flexibility to all employees would make an employer more attractive to workers at all stages of life or career. It could also boost employee morale and loyalty and possibly enhance productivity by improving work-life balance.
Employers, however, may be expected to be less than enthusiastic about offering flexible work arrangements to all employees. Some jobs are not suited to flexible schedules. Offering this option to all employees could result in difficulties for employers in ensuring that critical work functions are covered at all times. This also poses challenges for supervision if employees and supervisors are working different schedules. Finally, there could be a bias against workers who opt for part-time employment when they are considered less committed and thus passed over for promotion or pay raises (Clay, 1998).
Another method of offering flexibility to workers pertains to flexibility in the location of work. It refers to telecommuting or work from other office locations or partner agencies (Christiansen, 2005; Workplace Flexibility 2010). Work location flexibility is a convenience or accommodation that would benefit workers. Working from home or other locations would assist workers with special needs for additional flexibility, including working parents, older workers, persons with disabilities, or young persons. Offering such a benefit could help recruit or retain workers who might otherwise not be working. Allowing employees to work from alternate locations could save money by reducing the amount of office space necessary. This would also reduce the need for commuting or the distance of commutes, thus reducing traffic congestion and pollution (Barr, 2007). Technology has advanced to the point where work can be completed remotely. Web-based conference calling allows people to ‘meet’ without being in the same room. This could ultimately control travel and overhead costs for employers.
Although flexibility in work location is attractive to workers and it may benefit employers as well, it raises important issues for employers. First, work location flexibility presents a challenging matrix for supervision when employees are not centrally located. Furthermore, the initial costs in terms of computer hardware and software may be prohibitive for some employers. There may also be possible negative consequences for workers. Employees would forego workplace interaction, networking, and a feeling of being a part of an organization. This could ultimately affect their prospects for advancement within the organization and their job satisfaction.

5. How to Pay for Ergonomic Adjustments: A Possible Policy Direction

One of the key issues surrounding the implementation of broad-scale ergonomic adjustments is who would bear the costs. If employers are expected to pay for these adjustments, then there would be reasons for employers opting for employing workers that do not require modifications. Such a consideration might make businesses postpone making any ergonomic adjustments for as long as possible. Research indicates that accommodations to workers with disabilities increased after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The typical accommodation was more in terms of flexibility in job requirements rather than in terms of changes in the physical environment of the job place (Burkhauser, 2008). This finding implies that the costs to ergonomic adjustments may be a concern to businesses.
Inasmuch as ergonomic adjustments are needed to accommodate some workers because their participation would benefit the economy, there is a broader societal interest along with a narrower interest on the part of individual business. A role for the government may thus be indicated. The government could offer a program of competitive grants for businesses that need ergonomic modifications. It may be further suggested that such a role is not confined to the federal government alone and that state and local governments could also play an important role (Chen, 2003).

6. Concluding Remarks: Receptivity of Flexible Work Options for All

Much of recent literature on flexible work options has come from gerontologists and economists interested in retaining workers beyond the age at which they normally retire (Penner, Perun, & Steuerle, 2003; Chen & Scott, 2003; Reday-Mulvey, 2005; Christensen, 2005; Hutchens, 2007; Pit-Catsouphes, 2007). From a political perspective, however, adoption of any social policy must enjoy broad-based, bipartisan support. In that light, some may resist or object to policies aimed specifically at one group, such as older workers. The same reservation or objection may be expected to face special workplace policies designed to meet the needs of women, persons with disabilities, or young people on the grounds that these policies support the special interest of one group or another.
Therefore, instituting work flexibility for all workers could avoid pitting one group against another in terms of policymaking. Moreover, offering flexible work options to all would also eliminate the legal obstacles facing flexible work options such as phased retirement that is based on age. It would also avoid intra-group resentment among employees in the same workplace.
Flexible work options for all, while not without significant challenges, has the potential to be a win-win strategy for all stakeholders involved, particularly for employers experiencing worker shortages and for employees needing flexibility. Universal flexibility holds the promise of attracting new workers, retaining current employees and promoting a culture of work/life balance, all of which tend to boost workforce morale. And it is possible that these policies might result in improved productivity among workers.
The federal government is in a unique position to set an example for employers in the private sector, since some federal agencies have already adopted flexible work options such as telecommuting and part-time work. There are also recent initiatives by the Federal government for creating job opportunities for people with disabilities. These agencies could serve as models for private-sector employers. The Government Accountability Office is undertaking a review of flexible work practices in federal agencies to identify best practices and areas in need of improvement (Bovbjerg, 2007).
The attraction of flexible work options for all workers is that everyone has the opportunity to benefit, including parents, older workers, caregivers of any age and either gender, young people, or persons with disabilities. Legal scuffles over discriminatory practices or animosity among employees may be avoided because all workers will have access to a similar array of work options. While challenges to flexible work options indeed exist, they do not appear insurmountable. It is likely that firms choosing to offer greater flexibility to their employees will be more successful in recruiting and retaining workers. Moreover, a strategy of flexible work options for all might well be an additional human-resource vehicle needed for mitigating labor shortages and boosting worker productivity. Finally, what is being proposed is not that work flexibility be imposed by government regulation. Rather, what is being envisioned is that employers and employees would consider the salubrious consequences of workplace flexibility after weighing the costs and benefits of flexible work options from viewpoints of both management and labor.

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