Workers in the United States have long lamented the grind of the 9-to-5 work day, evidenced through songs and movies, books, and self-help authorities who promise that freedom (and maybe even prosperity) await if only we could find a way to leave our jobs. But for a growing number of workers whose jobs are characterized by unpredictable schedules or require them to log hours at night and on the weekends, the Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 job may look relatively good. Unpredictable and non-standard schedules take a well-documented toll on workers and their families. That may explain why new research finds that many workers would be willing to forgo pay in order to preserve a standard, 9-to-5 schedule.
In the paper, economists Alexandre Mas of Princeton University and Amanda Pallais of Harvard University used a real-life hiring process at a call center to determine how much workers value different kinds of working conditions, including flexible schedule options (such as a full, 40-hour work week with varied hours, or the ability to set one’s own hours), working from home, and positions that gave the employer discretion over scheduling. About 7,000 applicants were offered the choice between a job with traditional Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 work hours or a job with one of these alternative options (which were randomly assigned). The two job offers differed in hourly pay—anywhere between 25 cents to $5 an hour—and the researchers also varied which job offer paid more.
Mas and Pallais find that, on average, workers would be willing to forgo a remarkable 20 percent in wages—one fifth of their paycheck—in order to avoid jobs in which the jobs required irregular schedules with evening and weekend hours. Many of those surveyed also would give up pay in order to work from home: 25 percent of applicants were willing to give up at least 14 percent of their wages to avoid coming into the office.
The authors, unsurprisingly, find some small gender differences. Women, on average, were more likely to favor these alternative work arrangements compared to men. And while Mas and Pallais could not determine whether the workers in their experiment had children, they did look at data from the Understanding America Study, finding that women with children are willing to be paid significantly less to avoid irregular schedules in exchange for the ability to work from home.
But what is more surprising, at least at first glance, is Mas and Pallais’ finding that the average worker does not value flexibility. That is, they are not willing to give up pay in exchange for the ability to set their own hours, or choose how many hours they work. In fact, many of those surveyed actively preferred a set schedule, saying they liked having somebody else set their own schedule because it held them accountable for working enough hours. But the authors caution that these results should not be interpreted to mean that all workers do not value flexibility. Looking only at the average masks about a quarter of those surveyed who value flexibility very much—and are willing to give up about 7 percent of their wages to obtain it.
It is important to note this research by Mas and Pallais is looking at a very specific group of people—workers who are applying for a specific job at a call center. So while the results add to the body of literature dealing with worker schedules and alternative work arrangements, it is unclear how applicable they are to the entire workforce. What’s more, while this experiment sets up these options as a tradeoff—ideal work schedule versus pay—in order to determine how workers feel about different kinds of schedule arrangements, extending this mindset to the real work sets a dangerous precedent because of its implications for racial and gender equality.
A great deal of evidence points out that firms who practice work-life not only help families, but also can reduce turnover and boost productivity (which means faster overall economic growth). This research highlights, however, that different workers need different things in order to do find the right work-life balance for themselves. Combining broad-based workplace rights such as paid leave and sick days with a more individualized approach to scheduling can help workers and employers across the country.