TIME Careers & Workplace

Here’s Why Your Work Life Will Never Truly Be Flexible

This was supposed to be the golden age of employee flexibility. With everyone connected to the Internet — and their jobs — practically 24/7, there’s no practical reason why an office worker can’t do many of their day-to-day tasks from a home office the side of a soccer field or the beach.

But recent research reveals the illusion of freedom is exactly that: Today’s workforce is as much at the beck and call of their employers as ever, and some hard-won concessions are vanishing entirely. A new study of 545 employers put out by Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work finds that very few are as flexible as they claim to be.

The usual way social scientists measure workplace flexibility is by asking companies if they let any of their employees do things like work from home, juggle their hours or reduce their workload to take care of family obligations. The problem with measuring this way is that the same rules don’t necessarily apply to everybody. A company that is willing to bend over backwards to accommodate a c-level executive or top performer isn’t necessarily going to be as generous with rank-and-file workers. What’s more, somebody who works at, say, a high-tech company is a lot likelier to catch a break than someone toiling away on a factory floor — manufacturing companies are the least-flexible when it comes to offering their workers options.

Working from home is generally the most commonly allowed flexible work arrangement, and even the stats on that aren’t so hot. According to the 2014 National Study of Employers, only 38% of employers let some employees work at home on a regular basis, and just 3% extend this perk to “all or most” workers.

The culprits are poor management training — most supervisors don’t really know how to manage remote workers — and a suspicion that employees will goof off if they’re not under the boss’s watchful eye, says an article in the New York Times.

This is all the more discouraging when you realize that working from home is where companies have made the most progress. Other kinds of flexible work arrangements, including leave for dads, adoptive parents and caregivers, are vanishing. Job-sharing or switching to part-time is a rare option.

“More employers are cutting back programs that would allow workers to reduce hours to better manage the care of, say, an ill parent,” the Times article says. “Employers have also cut back the length of leave to new fathers and adoptive parents, and reduced pay given to birth mothers on leave.” And the number of workplaces that permit job-sharing fell by 11 percentage points between 2008 and today.

Offering flexible work options on such a limited basis kind of defeats the purpose, according to Sloan Center director Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes. “Employers who implement limited programs might become frustrated if they don’t see the outcomes they had hoped for,” she says in a statement. “Employers and employees are better able to reap the benefits of workplace flexibility when the initiatives are comprehensive.”

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