Blogs & Comment

The costs and benefits of flexible workplace standards

When should all employers be forced to follow the same rules and when should diversity rule?

(Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty)

What kind of workplace do you want? Should your workplace experience be determined by regulations, or instead be negotiated between you and your employer?

A recent survey sheds interesting light on what people love, and hate, about their workplaces. The survey, carried out by Wakefield Research for Citrix, produced lots of interesting tidbits. For example, among male workers, the part of office life they secretly hate most is office baby showers. In exchange for the chance to work at home just one day per week 32% of workers would give up their lunch breaks. Oh, and 7% of workers, when given the chance to work from home, prefer to work in their underwear or in the nude. And so on.

Citrix is an Internet and cloud computing company, so naturally the take-away lesson it suggests has to do with the advantages of telecommuting and, in particular, with the desirability of employers offering employees the flexibility to work from home.

But the question of flexibility arises at more that one level. It arises at the level of what employers offer employees (say, the flexibility to occasionally work from home), but it also arises at the level of employers. Namely, should employers have the option to offer such flexibility, or should all employers be required—by law or regulation—to offer the same kinds of flexibility?

More generally, what elements of work life ought to be regulated to the point of being standardized? And which elements ought to be up to employers and employees to sort out? The generic argument for uniformity or standardization is reasonably clear: people are people, and ought generally to be treated in similar ways regardless of where they work.

In fact, these issues have to be settled on a case-by-case basis because there are also valid arguments for diversity in employment arrangements. Most obviously, there’s an argument based in the importance of freedom of choice. Why should everyone be forced to work under one set of circumstances? Shouldn’t the terms of the employment contract be a matter of free negotiation—within broad limits, perhaps defined in terms of fundamental human rights—between employer and employee?

But customization of workplace experience also holds the promise of better outcomes, at least in theory, because different workers likely want and value different things in a workplace. And there will always be trade-offs. Some may prefer a workplace that rewards long hours with high pay. Others may prefer “good” pay in return for “reasonable” hours. Some may want to work in a close-knit team that works and plays together, while another may prefer a strict separation of work and pleasure. In this sense, a workplace is a product like any other, one that we “buy” with our labour. And if you can find ways to give more people what they want, you’ve done a good thing.

I find this a useful way of framing questions related to employment standards. For any given question, we should ask: is this something that we need to legislate into a standard, or something on which we need to allow diversity? If the former, then we’re faced with the hard challenge of figuring out what the single best standard is for all to follow. If the latter, then the challenge is to figure out how to make sure the choices employees make are free and informed. The promise of the market is that it will enhance welfare, an outcome possible only with freedom and informed choice.