When Dolly Parton sang about working 9 to 5 in 1980, it was in the tone of annoyed acceptance. Back then, there weren't many options other than pouring yourself a cup of ambition and heading off to the grind. But as advances in technology have made remote work easier and more accessible, the number of those participating in flexible work has skyrocketed.
In 1985, only 12.4 percent of the workforce had access to flexible work hours. In 1997, that number more than doubled to 27.6 percent. A 2016 survey of workers in the United States found that 43 percent spend at least "some time" working remotely, up from 39 percent four years before. A 2015 survey found that 80 percent of companies offer working arrangements that are, in some part, flexible.
Overall, the move toward flexible work has been seen as a net positive for workers. Not being beholden to strict schedules has led workers to become more efficient in how they spend their own time. (One example is the now-common practice of "time banking," where companies allow workers to trade in overtime hours for an extra day off.) Meanwhile, freedom from the office — and the daily commute and stagnant cubicle lifestyle that goes along with it — has allowed workers to more seamlessly mix work and home life.
"Women don't want separation between work and life. They want integration," says Anne Auerbach, the co-founder of the flexible work job listings site Werk, in an interview with Forbes. "Flexibility is about compatibility between the needs of an employee and the objectives of an employer."
In fact, what's often ignored in the flexible work conversation is that second consideration. Companies are not only benefiting from the structure of flexible work hours — they wouldn't allow it if they weren't — but, in many cases, they're doing so in dramatic ways.
One notable study was conducted in 2015 by Stanford University researcher Nicholas Bloom, who wanted to test whether the belief that workers slack off more when working from home was valid. Bloom and his crew studied the differences between the employees at a call center in China who worked from home, and those who worked in the office. They found that:
Home working led to a 13 percent performance increase, of which 9 percent was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick days) and 4 percent from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter and more convenient working environment). [Bloom et al.]
The workforce has also been more productive on a macro level. In the third quarter of 2017, "productivity" increased by 3 percent. That's the largest increase since 2014. But this added productivity doesn't come from thin air. Rather, it's largely been created by workers simply doing more work.
This may have something to do with "work hour creep." While 77 percent of millennials say that flexible hours would make them more productive, 89 percent admit to regularly checking work emails after work hours. This erasure of the line between work and life has actually incentivized corporations to push their employees to join the flexible work revolution. There are even how-tos for getting employees to embrace the concept.
While there have certainly been benefits to workers, they are not necessarily spread equally among the workforce. A 2016 study published in the European Sociological Review found that the rise of flexible work has been associated with an increase in overtime hours and income, but only for male workers. "Women in full-time positions also increase their overtime hours when using schedule control," the study's authors write, "yet, they do not receive similar financial rewards." One potential cause for this discrepancy, as theorized by the authors, is that employers dock women because they use their flexibility for "family-friendly purposes." This apparent calculation demonstrates the true motives behind flexible work policies.
If the concept of a productive workforce is based on the idea of workers competing with one another, the erasure of hard-won worker protections, such as the 40-hour workweek, will allow unfettered competition to erode the quality of life for all. Without agreements in place between management and its workforce — with assistance from unions or worker-minded legislators — workers will continue to feel the pressure to be productive during nearly every moment of their lives. (Here's a fun exercise: Track how much work you get done while sitting on a toilet this week.)
This is the true horror story hidden in the rise of the freedom of flexible work. While we're successfully killing the 9-to-5 workday cage, what's risen in its place is the compulsion to work even longer hours. As Dolly sang, "It's a rich man's game no matter what they call it."
This story originally appeared as How corporations benefit from flexible work on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.