If you ask people if they like flexibility in their jobs, they generally say, yes. But do they like it more than, say, stability or benefits? Would they trade a slightly higher-paying job with more uncertain hours for a lower-paying 9-to-5 job? In other words, how much is flexibility worth when compared to other things?
Interestingly, while there are surveys that have measured people’s attitudes towards flexibility and independence, these studies haven’t done a very good job of measuring how much they value flexibility. Consequently, we tend to treat “flexibility” as a free-floating property, or even as an absolute: we imagine that people view it as a kind of economic liberty. Now, a new study by two economists, Princeton’s Alexandre Mas and Harvard’s Amanda Pallais, seeks to more precisely measure the value of flexibility. As writer Sarah Kessler explains in an article in Quartz, Mas and Pallais
tested how much value workers placed on flexibility while they were recruiting call center workers for another study. After applicants applied for the job, the researchers asked more than 3,000 of them to choose between a job that offered a standard 9-to-5 schedule or the same job, but with one of five flexible scheduling options: choose when to work; choose how many hours to work; work on a traditional schedule, but from home; choose both how much to work and when; and hear from your employer one week in advance when you’ll work.
The difference between hourly pay for each of the job options varied randomly. Sometimes it was the same. Sometimes the alternative work arrangement paid more, or a lot more, than the traditional job, and sometimes the traditional job paid better.
Mas and Pallais found that when workers chose between the two types of jobs presented to them—one an alternative work arrangement and one a traditional, office-based, 9-to-5 job—workers overwhelmingly place little value on flexible options.
Obviously everyone makes these calculations a little differently, and given enough money most of us are willing to rationalize accepting choices that otherwise would be unpalatable. But when given the choice between a 9-to-5 job and a flexible job that paid the same, 40% of people chose the 9-to-5; even when the flexible job paid $5/hour more, 20% of people still chose the fixed hours.
People really didn’t like the option of having employers set their hours a week in advance: you had to increase wages by $3.41 to get half the people offered that job to say yes. But when you think about it, that’s the version of the “gig economy” that gives all the advantage to employers, and gives workers the worst bargain: as an employee you don’t have the flexibility to do your work the way you want, but your employer has the flexibility to treat your schedule as their plaything. And if other parts of your life depend on stability, you pay a penalty in having to manage those more closely: you have to scramble to find new child care arrangements, or find someone to walk the dogs, and so on.
Interestingly, women were 30% more likely to accept a flexible job offer, and to accept a lower-paying job if it meant being able to work from home. They also were more averse to taking a job whose hours were both unpredictable and set by the employer.
So what this means for employers is that flexibility is less valuable than many of us assume, and less attractive a perk– especially if that “flexibility” looks like something that comes at the employee’s expense. Or as Mas concludes, for the most part, “People just want a fixed schedule…. They don’t really care about being able to adjust it.”
The article is published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Here’s the abstract:
Valuing Alternative Work Arrangements
We use a field experiment to study how workers value alternative work arrangements. During the application process to staff a national call center, we randomly offered applicants choices between traditional M-F 9 am – 5 pm office positions and alternatives. These alternatives include flexible scheduling, working from home, and positions that give the employer discretion over scheduling. We randomly varied the wage difference between the traditional option and the alternative, allowing us to estimate the entire distribution of willingness to pay (WTP) for these alternatives. We validate our results using a nationally-representative survey. The great majority of workers are not willing to pay for flexible scheduling relative to a traditional schedule: either the ability to choose the days and times of work or the number of hours they work. However, the average worker is willing to give up 20% of wages to avoid a schedule set by an employer on a week’s notice. This largely represents workers’ aversion to evening and weekend work, not scheduling unpredictability. Traditional M-F 9 am – 5 pm schedules are preferred by most jobseekers. Despite the fact that the average worker isn’t willing to pay for scheduling flexibility, a tail of workers with high WTP allows for sizable compensating differentials. Of the worker-friendly options we test, workers are willing to pay the most (8% of wages) for the option of working from home. Women, particularly those with young children, have higher WTP for work from home and to avoid employer scheduling discretion. They are slightly more likely to be in jobs with these amenities, but the differences are not large enough to explain any wage gaps.