The Rise and Fall of Flex Time "Nine to Five" just doesn't work for a lot of people, which may explain why some studies show that flexible hours increase productivity. So why are fewer companies offering them?

The Rise and Fall of Flex Time

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

For years now, flex time has been touted as the salvation for stressed-out employees, a bonus for the bottom line, and as the future of the American workday. In theory, flex time should allow workers to shift their office hours to accommodate the rest of their lives and still get their jobs done, be home early to pick up the kids, avoiding a crushing rush hour, or work 10-hour days and take Friday off. Chuck the 9-to-5, and the possibility to re-create the typical workday seem endless. But a new national survey released this month by the Department of Labor's Bureau of Statistics suggests that flex time is declining. Nearly 10 percent fewer companies offer flexible hours today than did three years ago, and fewer workers say they're taking advantage of flex time. What happened? Maybe companies find it too much of a hassle; maybe workers worry that the boss will react if they ask for the time off.

What's your experience with flex time, as an employer or an employee? Did it work for you? Did it create more trouble than it was worth? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is

Later in the program, Fernando Meirelles, the director of "City of God," joins us to talk about his latest film, "The Constant Gardener."

But first, flex time. Our first guest is Lonnie Golden, a professor of economics and labor studies at Penn State University, Abington College. He joins us from member station WRTI in Philadelphia.

Good of you to be with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor LONNIE GOLDEN (Penn State University): Great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Should we be surprised that flex time is declining?

Prof. GOLDEN: I don't think we should be too surprised, although we should be disappointed. It's disappointing because so many polls asked of workers find that they rank flexible work schedules on a daily basis as a really high priority and something that would be important to them. But we shouldn't be too surprised because maybe the job market is in a state now really no better than it was the last time we measured this in 2001. And as a result, they don't feel quite as much pressure as they might have previously, like in the late 1990s, compelling them to provide flexible work schedules to employees who request them.

CONAN: So it's still seen by companies as a concession to workers as opposed to something that might help them increase productivity?

Prof GOLDEN: Yeah, and I think that's disappointing, too, because there's all kinds of new evidence out by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Family Work Institute that find in case studies that introducing more flexibility in work schedules wind up increasing the productivity of their work force. And we also know that there are more and more dual earners in the work force, and we assume that younger-generation workers and those who want to phase in retirement would appreciate this kind of daily flexibility. So it's kind of surprising that it's stopped increasing and we're no higher than we were in 1997 in terms of getting access to flexible work schedules.

CONAN: Are fewer workers asking for flex time as well, maybe not in surveys but asking their supervisors and bosses?

Prof. GOLDEN: That's something we can't observe directly. It's very possible that workers are more reluctant than they had been in previous years because there is evidence in other surveys that workers fear asking. They fear maybe some sort of retribution from co-workers; they fear that asking sends some sort of signal that they're not really committed to their job or to the work force generally. Even though it might not be the case, they might be reluctant to approach their supervisor or approach their employer right now when they're not feeling so secure in their job.

CONAN: Now obviously, there's a fair number of jobs--a lot of jobs--where flex time is not possible. Got to be at that cash register and other kinds of jobs, teaching, that sort of thing. It's really hard to get flexible schedules. But on the other hand, there are a lot of jobs--the culture in the country is if you're not at your desk real late, you're slacking off.

Prof. GOLDEN: I think there's something to that. And there are some jobs that are inherently less flexible than others. And as a result, it makes it more costly for managers, for employers to arrange a more flexible work schedule in order, like you say, to get coverage at the desk or at the phone. But that doesn't mean that flex time, which again is this notion that you can adjust, as an employee, the starting or ending time of your daily work schedule--it doesn't mean it's impossible or insurmountable. But if we go through a period where the employer is not looking to retain or attract new workers or talent at that particular moment, maybe they don't have to offer it or maybe they don't have to innovate or conceive of new ways to make a little more flexibility, which really, Neal, most employees, all they need is a little bit of flexibility at the starting or ending time of their day if they're going to overcome some of these daily stressors at those times.

CONAN: Do we know whether men or women use flex time more?

Prof. GOLDEN: We know it's about equal in terms of how they answer the question in this survey that you cited, which is, do you have flexible hours that allow you to vary or make changes in the time you begin and end work? We do know that men actually have a slightly higher percentage than women, and we do know why. It's really either one of two reasons. One is that men are inherently in jobs that provide more flexibility. The other is that men get greater access to informally type of arranged flexible work schedules. That is to say, women aren't denied flexibility relative to men because they're not in workplaces that don't have--or that have flex-time formal type of programs, it's just that men seem to have an advantage over women getting some sort of informal arrangement with their team, their supervisor, their manager.

CONAN: Who may be men as well. But in other words, what you're saying is that this is, to some degree, a perk?

Prof. GOLDEN: There are a couple reasons why employers want to introduce flex time, and one of the main ones is it is a perk, it's a reward maybe for past performance or it's a way to retain, you know, your high performers or somebody, you know, who you find it, as an employer, very costly to replace. So to the extent that employers, like you say, are using it as a perk, there is an inherent advantage for men over women there.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us an e-mail: What's your experience been with flex time? Did it work for you, either as an employee or as a supervisor? Give us a call.

And we'll begin with Preston. Preston calling us from Tallahassee in Florida.

PRESTON (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

PRESTON: I was a captain in the Marine Corps, and I got out last year. And when I was in the Corps, I managed civilian employees. And my experience with flex time has totally turned me off on it. The two arguments for flex time was that it would make employees more productive, but my experience was that it really didn't. Basically, our employees got every other Friday off, every payday Friday they got off. And so they would work nine-hour days and then get that one day off. And that extra hour, I don't think they were that much more productive. And in addition, the employees saw it as, like, an entitlement. And after some time, they were using other days, sick days, to take kids to the dentist and the doctor. And one of the excuses I got all the time was that, you know, the dental office isn't open on Fridays. And it never worked out that they used that Friday to take care of personal issues so that they'd be more productive the rest of the workweek.

CONAN: So you felt like you were getting ripped off?

PRESTON: I felt it really didn't work out as it was intended to because, like I said, they thought that it was just an extension of their weekend.

CONAN: Lonnie Golden, I'm sure there are other managers out there with similar stories.

Prof. GOLDEN: Well, that's right. A lot of managers do suspect that some folks are going to abuse it or take advantage of it. And of course there's always the 80-20 rule. So maybe 20 percent are going to do that. But what Preston was referring to is something we call more formally the compressed workweek where you're lumping hours, you know, in the four days, and that's really not exactly what we mean by flex time. So there are degrees of flexibility and degrees of autonomy. And if all we're doing is shifting the hours to four days a week--a lot of employees, by the way, particularly men, appreciate that, and they do like to extend their weekend. So there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but you're right, managers might be reluctant to do so 'cause they lose a little of the control that they might've had otherwise.

CONAN: Preston, thanks for the call. Good luck.

PRESTON: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Here's an e-mail we got from Ingrid in Madison, Wisconsin. `In a former job, I was occasionally allowed to use flex time. It was amazing how much more I could get done by working according to what schedule worked best for me and how I liked to approach my work. What I did at the time was very detailed. I did my best work when everybody else was gone, nights and weekends.' So, obviously, for her, it did work.

Let's go now to our next guest. Phyllis Moen is with us. She's a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, the author of "The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream." And she joins us from the Voiceworks studio in Minneapolis.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor PHYLLIS MOEN (Author, "The Career Mystique"): Thank you. Glad to be here.

CONAN: What are your thoughts on why flex time--use of flex time is decreasing?

Prof. MOEN: I think that Lonnie really hit the nail on the head in saying that it has to do with the fact that workers are afraid of the message that they would be giving if they asked for it. And given our global economy, most people are afraid they're going to lose their job. Just one person that we interviewed, a mother of two in upstate New York, said, `We've talked about flexibility, but it's all based on what your supervisor's willing to allow you to do.' And that puts you in a mode of groveling. So, while it's a good thing to have, many people don't like the way they have to say sort of, `Mother, may I take this time off?'

CONAN: So it's not something--are there instances where people can negotiate this in union contracts, for example, though, and avoid that?

Prof. MOEN: They do, but most union contracts have focused on wages rather than time, and they're only now recently looking at the time squeeze of so many Americans.

CONAN: And, well, you're mentioning essentially the culture of the workplace. You can be seen to be slaving away if you're at your desk, the thought being if you're at home or working odd hours, working by computer or that sort of thing, that nobody knows if you're getting your job done or not.

Prof. MOEN: Absolutely. And this is the thing that I've noticed after 25 years of studying these issues, is that we equate time with productivity and time with commitment. And what I'm seeking to encourage companies to do is to move away from clockwork as the measure of productivity to some other form of assessing it.

CONAN: And obviously, again, this works better in some jobs than others.

Prof. MOEN: I think it could work in every job. We just have to--instead of having it be a little add-on, a Band-Aid, we need to rethink the organization of work. Everything has changed since the 1950s. The work force has changed, work has changed, technology has changed, but what hasn't changed is this clockwork, this glass matrix of hours and calendars and clocks that govern every aspect of work life and therefore every aspect of all life.

CONAN: But obviously you need a certain number of nurses in the ER at any particular time and doctors, too.

Prof. GOLDEN: Absolutely. But you can divide up jobs so that different people are there at different times. They don't necessarily need to work just the way we have jobs configured right now. If we threw out what we had now, I'm sure that we can reconfigure any job. The one that people most have trouble with is the idea of a receptionist because you need to be there.

CONAN: Well...

Prof. GOLDEN: But we could change it.

CONAN: Well, talking about flex time. Which companies offer it, which workers take it and why, and why not? If you're an employer who offers flex time or doesn't, give us a phone call: (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is

Back after the break. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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Today, we're talking about why fewer employers are offering flex-time hours and why fewer employees are taking them. If you've worked a flexible schedule, did it make you more productive? Did it benefit just you or did it also help your company? (800) 989-8255. E-mail, as always,

Our guests are Lonnie Golden, a professor of economics and labor study at Penn State University's Abington College. And we're also talking with Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Nick. Nick calling from Goshen, Indiana.

NICK (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Hi, Nick.

NICK: Hi. Good to be on your show.

CONAN: Thanks.

NICK: My observation in working in industry is that it worked fine for salaried jobs, but even that was a problem in that you had to verify it somehow. It's one of those things, if you allow this person off and another person wants a time, then, you know, how do you enlist the whole thing? How do you keep track of--because that's one of the things, if you do it for one, you have to do it for everybody.

CONAN: Yeah, but presumably, if there's a task that they're assigned and they got that report done, whatever it was, then they used their time.

NICK: Oh, but again, you have to--you know, how do you prove it? There's no--with manufacturing jobs, everything is pretty well cut and dried because they punch a clock or whatever. But with supervisory or other, you know, non-hourly jobs, as it is, a lot of it's not quantitative; a lot of it is, you know, you're there eight hours a day or you're there 10 hours a day, or--and some salary jobs, you know, you might be there 12 hours a day.

CONAN: Lonnie Golden, there's a problem.

Prof. GOLDEN: Well, the caller is right. For certain jobs, it's going to be inherently difficult to provide total autonomy of work hours. On the other hand, it is a leap of faith. So the supervisor is going to have to have some trust or have some more formal system of accountability that when they provide a more flexible schedule to start or end their workday, that the employee is going to have to deliver and lose the entitlement that or lose that privilege if they abuse it.

CONAN: Your thoughts, Phyllis Moen?

Prof. MOEN: Well, Woody Allen said that 90 percent of life was showing up. And that's how we've viewed work, that if you get there--when I first--my very first job many years ago was at an Orkin exterminating company. And the workers there taught me how to clock in before I did anything else. I could then go have breakfast or do whatever because I was on the time clock. And I think that if we still think of being there as what is wanted, then we can't move to thinking about what is the product that we want this worker to accomplish.

CONAN: Nick, thanks very much for the phone call.

NICK: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Here's an e-mail we got from Josh. `While it may seem a good thing in theory, flex time seems not to work out well in practice. I do believe most workers would like to have more flexible schedules and would be more productive if given that option. However, the hang-up comes with management, particularly middle management, and their view of this. Many who flex are seen as bucking the corporate way or not team players. Many managers in my experience with large public corporations even view workers as not hard-working as their non-flexing counterparts.' And, Phyllis, that's exactly what you were talking about.

Prof. MOEN: Absolutely. And this is the need for rethinking the culture of work entirely, because as long as we say sitting in that chair is what we want to pay you for, then we will value the person who comes early and stays late and not the amount of work. It reminds me of my students who say, `I studied four hours for that test.' But if they didn't learn anything, all the hours didn't matter.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Tanya. Tanya calling from Columbus, Ohio.

TANYA (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hello.

TANYA: I think Phyllis is right on. It's about culture. I work for a company that--all of our employees, for the most part, set their own schedules and we're paid on our productivity, the results of what we accomplish. Some days I work three hours way early in the morning in my pajamas at my computer; other days I'm on the road for 10 hours. So, you know, it's very a very flexible schedule that I establish. I'm a traveling therapist. I see injured workers. So I think, you know--but that's how our company's culture is, is it doesn't really matter how many hours you work; it's what kind of results you get.

CONAN: Given that opportunity, Tanya, does the job seem to make more sense to you? I mean, you're doing what needs to be done rather than just filling in time.

TANYA: Exactly. It's much more meaningful for me. I've done this for about 18 months now. Before that, I was a typical clinical therapist, went to work at 8, punched a clock, you know, had a half-hour lunch break--you know, the typical things. But a lot of times, if we weren't busy, I did nothing. And there were a lot of things I would've rather done, you know? So I got paid just, as she was saying, for showing up. This makes my time much more valuable.

CONAN: Well, thank you for the call. Appreciate it.

And, Lonnie Golden, before we let you go, Tanya's example being on one side, and obviously we've heard some others, what do the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics tell us? Is the typical American workday getting better or worse?

Prof. GOLDEN: Hard to put that kind of judgment on it, but we do know is that the typical American workday seems to be spreading out a little bit over the day. So we have more people starting at odd times in the morning and the afternoon, and a greater percentage of the work force than we'd seen in the past cannot identify any particular time as the typical ending time of their workday. So the workday seems to be coming more open-ended.

And if I can speak to the last caller, there's a lot of evidence that, you know, the payoff to employers they get by introducing this flex time, which in turn is related to that open-ended workday, is that employees return the favor at some point in the future. So some people might abuse it, and as a result maybe productivity doesn't go up, but it certainly doesn't go down in most cases. But in the longer run, you got employees like the one who called in being more satisfied with their job, displaying some sort of more commitment to their organization. So, for instance, with my own research, I know that people who get flex time also put in relatively longer hours. So maybe they're displaying this in ways that pay off to the employer in the longer run.

CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today. Appreciate your time.

Prof. GOLDEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Lonnie Golden is a professor of economics and labor study at Penn State University's Abington College, and he joined us from the studios of member station WRTI in Philadelphia.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Jim. Jim calling from Wakarusa, Indiana.

JIM (Caller): Yes, hello. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JIM: I had ran a fitness center for four and a half years, and we obviously needed a receptionist, somebody to check people in. And I'm sorry, I forget the woman's name that's on the show...

CONAN: Phyllis Moen.

JIM: Phyllis Moen. She had said that it would work for all industries and even for receptionists, but didn't really say how. And I was curious actually what she would propose to do to change that, and just had a quick comment on--I think flex time can be a great thing if it's used correctly, but obviously it isn't good for all industries. I think one of the problems in being an employer and seeing employee mentality change--like she had said, it's changed since the '50s--I think part of the problem of the change since the '50s is the employee mind-set has went more of, what can the company do for me? In an interview, you know, a lot of people ask, `What can you do for me?' rather than this is what I can do for the company.

CONAN: Well, OK. Phyllis Moen? Hello, Phyllis?

Unidentified Woman: Need more?

CONAN: Here we are. Phyllis, are you there? Phyllis Moen, are you there?

Prof. MOEN: I'm here.

CONAN: Ah, there we are! OK. We were apparently having a little bout of technical difficulty there. Jim in Wakarusa, Indiana, was asking--you mentioned it could even work for receptionists. How?

Prof. MOEN: If we just think out of the box--for instance, if there are three people, maybe instead of having a flexibility--I mean, excuse me, a reception position, people could take turns manning or personing the desk in the front of the fitness center. So I think we assume that jobs are exactly this way and that we can't change them, but if you do a little blue-sky thinking about how can they be arranged differently--let me also say that I think, however, that flexibility is not sufficient, because most flex time programs--I mean, you can simply just start earlier and leave earlier, but you don't have real flexibility. What people want is control over where and when and how they work.

CONAN: Jim, would that suggestion work in your shop?

JIM: Not really. With our fitness center, we don't really have that big of a budget, and sometimes there's only one person at the fitness center at a given time during the slow times. So we wouldn't really be able to rotate another person in without hiring extra people, which our business really wouldn't be able to feasibly afford.

Another thing that I found with--and, you know, like I said, this is narrowed to our one little industry, but when I did schedule employees and ask them when do you want to work or when I switched it up, they actually preferred to work on a set schedule. They came to me and said, `Hey, instead of scheduling me some Tuesdays and Wednesdays and some Thursdays and Fridays, could you just do me on a set schedule, and that way I could plan around my work, and that way I could plan three weeks out,' rather than having to worry about can they be there or not. That way, they can plan their outside schedule around the work. They actually preferred that.

Prof. MOEN: But I think, Jim, that's wonderful that you ask them because in a sense you then give them some control. And maybe in a small office it is hard to have the kind of flexibility I'm talking about, but you're providing it by giving them a voice in how they work.

JIM: Right, not just to the last minute. I would need to know, you know, a couple of weeks ahead of time, so they wouldn't be able to choose when they can work unless they chose it in far enough advance of time to where, you know, we would make sure we had coverage.

CONAN: OK, Jim. Well, thanks for the call. And good luck to you.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: For an employer's-eye view, we turn now to Debra Cohen, the chief knowledge officer at the Society for Human Resource Management. She's with us by phone from her office in Alexandria, Virginia.

Good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. DEBRA COHEN (Chief Knowledge Officer, Society for Human Resource Management): Thank you.

CONAN: What are some of the challenges businesses face when thinking about flex time?

Ms. COHEN: Well, flex time is clearly something that is used by organizations to help attract and retain workers. It's certainly a strategy in part of the mix of benefits. One of the challenges, though, that you face is that it can be quite complex, and you need to have a fairly straightforward policy and a set of procedures that managers can use, and everyone in the organization really has to be on the same page. And by that, I mean managers and employees and the executives in the organization need to all, certainly, believe in the policy and then follow through with the policy. So you've got to have lots of consistency across the organization, or else you face the danger that employee attitudes will be affected if someone feels as though they can't have access to the program that perhaps someone else has access to.

CONAN: All right. Here's an e-mail that we got from Denise in Madison, and I'd like both of you to respond to this. `I was in a flex-time trial at a large corporation in the late '90s. The biggest problem was resentment between employees, not the management. The trial was introduced as a way to flex your home commitments--children's appointments, school commitments, that sort of thing. Many people started taking flex time to golf in nice weather, get their hair and nails done. The resentment between harried young parents tending to home needs and others seeking recreation became so bad that the trial was stopped. How does Ms. Moen suggest we juggle these social resentments?'

Prof. MOEN: That's interesting, because in our work we find that the people who feel most stressed about overwork are often couples and individuals without children, because they have no break from the work. They--there's no reason why they can't stay till 9 or 10 or do work at home. And so I'm surprised about the resentment. One way of handling the scheduling and reducing the sense of inequity is by having decisions made at the team level. Let the team work out what works best for everyone, not have it be an individual benefit that someone has to ask for and is negotiated between the supervisor and the employee. Rather, have a focus where a group of people are deciding for the next month or so, `Why don't we work this way and see how it works?'

CONAN: Debra Cohen, are those rivalries and those resentments--are you familiar with those?

Ms. COHEN: Certainly. That is certainly something that can happen. As Phyllis mentioned earlier--she was talking a little bit about control, and folks certainly want to have control. And the problem, of course, is that the organization wants to have control, as well as the employees.

One other point here I would make is that, while flexibility, I think, is quite valuable in the workplace, employees and organizations need to realize that it's not just about flexibility. If you have an issue between work-life balance in terms of too much work vs. life, and this situation that the e-mail alludes to, which is young parents perhaps trying to juggle their life with their work--indicates that they are on overload, without the ability to have the luxury time that perhaps other people are taking flex time to use.

So it's--certainly, flexibility is important, but it's also an issue to realize that if the work has to get done, even if you can take two or three hours at the start of the day, perhaps either to golf or to take your child to the doctor, you still have to get the work done.

CONAN: Right. We're talking about flex time, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is John. John's with us from Kansas City.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. How's it going?

CONAN: All right.

JOHN: Yeah. I just wanted to comment on that. I worked for Commerce Bank executive branch here in Kansas City. I was there for, like, oh, a good seven years. And I've noticed--when I went today--we had flex time to use. We had, like, 20 minutes a month or something like that to use for our time for--if we had to take the kids, pick them up from extended day or, you know, things like that. And what I ran into is that middle management would still punish you for using that, you know, your flex time or whatever, because it has to be approved by upper management. But if upper management doesn't get--come in until, say, 8 or 9:00 that morning, and say you're running 20, 15 minutes behind because you got stuck in traffic or...

CONAN: Whatever, yeah.

JOHN: know, whatever, you would get wrote up for it.

CONAN: Debra Cohen?

JOHN: It--yeah. And, you know--and then you got to look at--OK, are they going to look at the person who's never taken flex time and give them the better raises, give them the holidays that they want to get off, or their vacations, or just any time...

CONAN: Yeah, this is the culture that Phyllis Moen has been talking about. I wanted to get a response from Debra Cohen.

Ms. COHEN: Sure. And I think it does speak to a culture issue. And whenever you have policies like that, you've got to be sure that not only will the culture support it, but that you also have training for managers and employees so that the culture supports it, but also the policies are administered evenly, so that one manager who understands, `Gosh, somebody got stuck in traffic for 20 minutes,' is not inconsistent with another manager who says, `You know what? I don't care about that. You're 20 minutes behind. And so flex time or not, the fact that you didn't give me advance notice is a problem.'

And so that speaks to the culture issue, and it also speaks to managers who are perhaps inconsistently applying the rules that the organization has tried to design for the benefit of the employees.

CONAN: And the employees end up feeling whipped, so--and you don't know whether you can ask for it or not.

Ms. COHEN: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. Debra Cohen, thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. COHEN: You're very welcome. Thank...

CONAN: Debra Cohen, chief knowledge officer at the Society for Human Resource Management, joined us by phone from her office in Alexandria, Virginia. And our thanks, too, to Phyllis Moen, sociology professor at the University of Minnesota.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

Prof. MOEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Phyllis Moen joined us from the Voiceworks studio in Minneapolis.

When we come back from a short break, the "City of God" meets the master of spycraft. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles joins us to talk about his new film, an adaptation of John Le Carre's "The Constant Gardener." It's the talk of the nation, from NPR News.

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