Give Us Flexibility Or Give Us What We’re Worth (Actually, Give Us Both)

On August 29, FlexJobs released a study that has some interesting things to say about job flexibility — that molting new version of our employment ecosystem that seems to be the future. Setting aside the problematic science of a job search website that specializes in “flexible work opportunities” funding research that flatters its business model, the results are provocative.

Predictably, the study found that only seven percent of potential employees interested in work flexibility said the office during standard office hours was their preferred location for being productive. Being that remote work is one of the fundamental hallmarks of flexible employment, the fact that a group that had already self-selected the preference produced this result is not very shocking.

What I think is interesting is the way this report functions as an effort to soothe the minds of old school employers. As much as it seems clear that society can no longer ignore the common sense of evolving along with technology, flexible workers (or would-be flexible workers) still regularly encounter trust issues. The wording in this report is so revealing. The office? Not just the least preferable place to work, but the least preferable for “optimum productivity on work-related projects.” The message to employers is simple: If you want better, faster returns, set your people free.

I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but based on self and peer observation, this does seem to play out, if not always in the most graceful fashion (those unshowered days spent entirely in bed with a laptop, the caffeine-fueled all-nighter when you’ve procrastinated yourself into a corner). With a huge range of variability and a slew of eclectic, individualized approaches, one way or another a valuable employee is going to deliver quality goods on time. That will never change. You will get what you pay for, and if you don’t deliver, you will stop getting paid. The market will self-correct. So in the end, how we get there is… not really anyone’s rightful concern, so long as we get there. From a business perspective, eliminating a permanent office (or at least keeping it minimal) can lower overhead—you don’t need as much square footage for a space that functions mainly as a meeting place, instead of a stable where people spend the majority of their time.

That being said, I’m not ready to put the concept of the office away entirely. Some of us do appreciate having a focused place to go to, where we can have conversations with real live humans engaged in the same goals, eat lunch together while talking shop, and keep it all completely compartmentalized away from the rest of our lives. But it’s good to have options.

Outside of the conflict of interest, my other problem with this study was the portion of the survey that asked respondents what they would be willing to give up in exchange for more flexible work options: Fifteen to 29 percent of respondents were amenable to significant reductions in pay, vacation time, retirement fund matching. (Also, 81 percent of respondents said they would be more “loyal” to their employers, which is the only scenario I’m down with, considering loyalty is free.) When I mentioned reducing overhead? Taking it from people’s pay is not what I meant. If there’s anything obvious about modern America’s economy, it’s that middle class workers need to be making more money, not less. The costs to be a freelancer, if you want to talk about true flexibility, can be much higher than for a full-time corporate employee, thanks to gutting healthcare costs and self-employment taxes. And vacation time? Come on. There are plenty of surveys from unbiased sources that note the many benefits to both workers and employers when paid vacation time is given and used. In short, I would plead to my fellow flexible workers not to sew the concept of reducing our livelihood into the minds of the employer class.

We do need more flexibility. Modernity demands that barriers be lowered for those with small children or mobility issues, and normalizing the elements of a flexible work style is part of the process. Building trust between employees and employers improves those relationships immensely, and both sides benefit. It’s not that one lifestyle needs to replace the other. It’s that both should coexist in harmony and shared abundance.

Marjorie is a former Creative Circle candidate based in Portland who recently accepted a full-time offer for her dream job. She is a writer/editor and stylist/producer with an emphasis in the design world. If you are interested in working with someone like Marjorie, please contact your nearest Creative Circle office.