When it comes to workplace flexibility and the global economy, the United States has a lot of catching up to do. That said, one silver lining of being slow on the uptake is that American employers can learn from the examples of workplace flexibility policies around the world, as Slate points out in a new interview with Heejung Chung. A Kent University professor of sociology and social policy, Chung has studied flexible work in Europe since she was working on her Ph.D.
She notes, for example, that the United Kingdom extended the right to request flexible work to all workers in 2014, but the problem with that policy is that it's only a right. That means employers also have the right to reject these requests, sometimes doing so without offering a reason for the rejection, and it can be costly for workers to appeal the decisions.
Workers have more power in the Netherlands, where employers who reject flex requests must provide a business case for their decision, Chung explains. In other words, these employers must prove that their business would suffer if that worker were to work flexibly. Thus, employers have a tougher time saying no to flex requests. "Such protection is crucial to making flexible working work," Chung says.
Plus, Chung adds, the Dutch notion of "full-time" work is 36 hours a week: "People really focus on being very productive in those 36 hours they're given, but then when they go home, there's a huge emphasis on time with family—and when I say family, I don't mean just core family but your relatives, brothers and sisters, etc.—and a lot of emphasis on well-being. And if you look at the data, they're some of the most productive people in industrialized countries."
But many Dutch workers are able to complete those 36 hours where and when they want, especially because the Dutch government "really supports teleworking and working from home and flexible schedules," Chung says. "The reason for that is the Netherlands is a really small country, and you could practically live anywhere and commute to any city to work. They have really good public transportation, but they don't want everybody to go to work at 9 a.m. because they have huge congestion. So the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment first pursued flexible working policies to solve this." (Read also: Could Flexibility Make Rush Hour a Thing of the Past?)
Chung herself is a proponent of flexible work, assuming there are boundaries in place so that flexible work doesn't become overwork. In fact, she said she was going to cut her workday short after the Slate interview to go swimming with her daughter.
It's about subverting our dogged devotion to productivity to save our relationships and even our wellbeing, as she explains: "In the end, the people who are going to be working 12 hours a day are going to be a much bigger burden to society as a whole, because of the lack of quality relationships with their children and friends and spouse, but also in terms of getting sick from working too much."
"Many of us are setting the bar higher and higher for each other," Chung adds. "We're just fueling the rat race. We have to step back and change our idea of what the ideal worker looks like."