Over the past couple of years, workers have gotten a taste for flexible work, and they’re hungry for more. Multiple recent surveys show that many workers rank flexibility among their top priorities, topping even pay. But University of Kent sociologist Heejung Chung says those who chase flexibility—defined as some control over one’s time and place of work—might be setting themselves up for trouble.
In her book The Flexibility Paradox, out March 4, Chung compiles her own research and that of hundreds of scholars to show that when workers are given flexibility, they generally work harder and longer—and they think more about work during non-work time. One analysis of 32,000 German workers found that those with control over their schedules logged four additional hours of overtime a week compared with people on fixed schedules. Another study using the same data showed that homeworking mothers in particular did more unpaid work, spending three more hours on childcare than their office-bound counterparts.
WIRED spoke to Chung about the reasons behind the phenomenon, how gender norms and parenting status can magnify the problem, possible solutions, and why, despite her findings, she supports flexible work.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
WIRED: You started writing the book before the pandemic. I don't imagine you could have predicted how timely it would become. What was your initial impetus?
Heejung Chung: In management literature, flexible work has been hailed as this amazing thing that's really great for work-life balance and gender equality. There’s been a lot of government legislation to try to promote this. But we saw that people who had a huge amount of autonomy over where and when they work were not living in this promised land of better work-life balance and greater leisure time. So I tried to take a more critical look. I was able to observe in a much more systematic way, with large-scale data that yes, flexible working can actually lead workers to work longer and harder.
Flexibility is about giving workers a choice over when and where they work. But you write about how those choices aren't as free as one might think, given the social contexts in which people are making them. Do you think people tend to overlook the broader forces influencing their behavior?
The thing is, many of us are living in societies with high levels of competition, great levels of insecurity, and a cultural belief that work should be your passion and that only through being very busy at work are you a worthwhile individual contributing to society. With the demise of the welfare state, it’s only through work that you can really gain most benefits. So the intensification of work actually comes from these embedded ideas about how one should live.
There's a theory called passion exploitation, where a passion for work enables us to exploit ourselves, but also for others to exploit us. If you look at the data, you see those attitudes about passion across a lot of occupations, and across countries as well. That's when it becomes a problem. It’s not only a select few that have this issue. It’s a much wider phenomenon.
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You outline several theories behind the flexibility paradox, including what you call self exploitation. What does that mean?
Our labor markets were built for our fathers in the 1950s, when it was assumed that you have a supporting spouse who can do all the reproductive work and all you need to do is work. There's an assumption that the person who can do that is productive, committed, and motivated, despite the fact that that's actually bullshit. There’s a negative connotation with flexible working, especially for those who have caring responsibilities. These tend more often to be mothers because of gender norms around whose responsibility it is to care and do housework. When that happens, people feel they have to work harder and longer to compensate for the stigmatized view.
There are employers who are putting surveillance cameras on remote workers, which is completely ludicrous. They don't need employers to do it. Workers are surveilling themselves.
Do you think the prevalence of flexible work during the pandemic has done anything to reverse the flexibility stigma?
If the majority of people work from home regularly, then some of those gender patterns might change. Still, I think there are unconscious biases against vulnerable workers—working mothers but also minority or disabled workers—where colleagues and managers will underestimate their capacities and flexible working may trigger biases. People are now slowly going back into the office, but those going back are majority white, male, heterosexual. Then you'll see a two-tiered market where people working from home are going to be penalized, and those in the office are going to get the promotions, the better projects, and be perceived more favorably by managers. So the way in which the hybrid workforce is implemented is really crucial. Because the pandemic has changed our norms about where work should be, but we still haven't tackled biases against certain workers. And it's not helped by Goldman Sachs’ CEO blurting out things like that working from home is an aberration.
You write that some of these external forces get reframed as personal choice through terms like workaholic. Do you think people who describe themselves as workaholics, which connotes addiction, are actually responding in a rational way to labor market pressures?
I think the term workaholic is not very helpful because the problem isn't with the worker. The problem is with societal pressures and external factors. The US, the UK, Korea, and Japan are workaholic countries. But these are not inevitable facts of human societies. The term workaholic is putting the onus on the individual as if it's the individual's fault or an illness or choice. There may be some of that, but especially in certain countries, it goes beyond the individual. This is a societal illness.
Another societal pattern is intensive parenting, which relates again to market insecurities. Because of gender norms, women do a large chunk of the housework and childcare in heterosexual relationships. So they aren't able to exploit themselves as much in the labor market, but they are expected to—and do—exploit themselves at home. This means that working from home is used to expand childcare or housework hours. Mothers especially are considered the architects of children's futures, where if you don't invest in your children's lives through reading and talking and setting up the right playdates and extracurricular activities, you are not preparing your children for their future labor market prospects. It’s reached the point that now, full-time working mothers spend more involved time with their children than housewives in the 1960s.
Flexible working can help to reduce gender inequality by enabling mothers to stay in the labor market. But it can also reinforce traditional gender roles because it comes with the expectation that mothers will be able to do both housework and childcare while working from home. Whereas for fathers, because of gender normative views about them being breadwinners, working from home is expected to be a protected time and space where they shut themselves off and only focus on work.
One image from the book stuck with me: When mothers work from home, they tend to work in communal spaces, so they're spread out at the dining room table, accessible to the children, whereas fathers are shut away in private offices.
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If you look at the time-use diaries of mothers and fathers, mothers’ working hours are tainted, especially during the pandemic. But fathers are relatively protected because of their roles. And children won't expect fathers to be available when working from home, whereas they expect mothers to be mothers first. This is why employers will stigmatize mothers homeworking, and they might not for fathers.
I can imagine a progressive woman reading this and thinking, “That's not how it is in my house. I'm the breadwinner, and my husband does the laundry.” In what ways could she still be affected by the gendered flexibility paradox?
Obviously, there’s some variation. But you'll probably find that women, when given the flexibility, will try to squeeze in as much housework and childcare, and weave in as many activities as possible, whereas fathers either won't, or use the excuse that their employers won’t let them. A lot of employers won't let mothers do that either. But mothers have no other option, so they might do it behind their bosses’ backs or they have to change jobs or drop out of the labor market altogether.
You write that flexible work frees up “mothers’ labor for free” and “relieves governments of the need for a social response.” Was flexible work a consolation prize for working mothers who were demanding more government support?
It’s not a consolation prize, per se. But if you really want to push a lot of women into the labor market, you need to free them up because there’s only 24 hours a day. In Sweden and Denmark, children at age 1 have access to high-quality, affordable daycare. But childcare in the US and UK is extortionately expensive. If you give women the opportunities to work from home as well as flextime, we see that mothers can maintain their labor market position after having children, and if you don't give them that, about half of mothers will drop out, especially if they don't have very-high-quality, cheap childcare.
Are there countries you think are models for healthy approaches to flexible work?
In the northern European countries, where gender egalitarian norms and work-life balance norms are more prevalent, and family-friendly benefits are seen as the norm, you don't see the flexibility paradox or the flexibility stigma as much. Workers have strong negotiation power and a very secure social security net, which will provide up to 80 percent of your income when you're unemployed. These are contexts that help shape people's attitudes toward the centrality of work.
You write about flexible work leading not just to overtime, but to blurring of boundaries between work and life, which can lead to what you call cognitive spillover, where people constantly think about work. What are some of the new laws that start to address this?
I think the right to disconnect is really crucial. This isn't necessarily just about managers. If people respond to email just before bed or just after waking up, everybody starts unconsciously marching toward that always-on, always-available kind of culture. The right to disconnect helps workers not be exploited by employers, but also helps stop that culture from developing.
Another thing is just general protection of workers. One reason why we are worried about work is there’s a high level of insecurity and lack of bargaining power. The European Commission introduced a series of policies barring discrimination against people who take up flexible working arrangements for parental needs. But there's also general protection, like making sure that workers are secure through better collective bargaining protections, and better legal protection in terms of job security.
You don't dispense a lot of self-help-y advice, since there are so many books on the subject. But are there any tips that you picked up that worked especially well for you?
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Having allocated time for work can be much more productive. Rather than thinking, I could work until late because I'm at home, really intentionally say no, I only have until 4:30. Those who are misusing flexible work so that your work blurs into the evening, you’ve got to question yourself: Is this really productive?
For women, because of the way we are socialized, you are going to feel like you need to do the housework and childcare while you're working from home. And I think you have to intentionally fight it. But also get your partner, if you have one, to try to use flexibility to enable a better work-life balance for both of you. Valentine's Day is coming up. Men, don't get your women flowers or lingerie. Get your manager to let you work some days from home, and use that flexibility to be a more involved father if you have children, be a more involved human if you have pets, do more housework. You'll find that it enhances your relationships, enhances your well-being. This is all empirical data-based evidence here.
Despite your findings, you're in favor of flexible work. Why is that?
Flexible working is two things. One, it’s an equal opportunity maker. Because it provides people, especially those with responsibilities outside of work, the ability to better focus on what is important at work rather than the performance of being in the office. It can also really help democratize voices. In Zoom, we can't talk over each other. There's a raise hand option you can use so that certain voices are not dominating. But flexible working is also an amplifier. If workers feel that they have to work all the time, flexible work will amplify that. If we live in a society where the division of paid and unpaid work is unequal and the assumptions behind men’s and women's work commitments are skewed, it will amplify that. So flexible working is a great tool, but we need to change a lot of our normative views around work, work-life balance, and gender roles because otherwise it will keep amplifying a lot of the problems we have in our society.
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