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Sorry, Working From Home Isn't the Future of Job Flexibility

Many jobs can't be done from home—but they offer another kind of flexibility, one that may not mean sacrificing pay.

Quick: When you dream of a more flexible work life, what does it look like? For most of us, the holy grail is working from home—but the future of flexible work arrangements could look very different.

Workers say in survey after survey that flexibility is a very important aspect of job satisfaction. But what they really want is to work from home, according to a recently published study by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

That's not realistic for many of the fields of work that are growing fastest, and it's not something most employers are offering. 

The average worker would take an 8 percent pay cut to work from home, the study found. Other possible work arrangements, such as compressing five days' worth of work into four or picking different start and end times, don't seem to justify a lower salary.

Working from home, perhaps more than any other arrangement, helps workers, especially those with kids, balance their day-to-day work and life duties. With child-care costs so high, it can make more financial sense for parents to stay home, a fact that has pushed many women out of the workforce. It's no surprise, then, that the study found women value the working-from-home option more than men. 

"It makes sense that women value this option," said Amanda Pallais, an economist at Harvard and one of the researchers. "Women still have the primary responsibilities for child-care in many families. If they can combine child-care and working, that seems like a big benefit." 

After all, nearly a third of women with a bachelor's degree leave the workforce when they have a child, according to a recent 30-year study; the number is slightly lower for those with less than a bachelor's degree. With no paid federal leave, many women either have to go back to work immediately or leave the workforce altogether. And more work flexibility, researchers have argued, would help close the gender pay gap. 

Yet working from home on a regular basis is one of the least popular ways employers give employees flexibility, and many of the fastest-growing jobs don't lend themselves to the cushy arrangement.

In a survey of more than 3,000 companies last year, 60 percent said they offered telecommuting—but only 20 percent let employees work from home full time, while a third offered the benefit on a part-time basis. For most, flexibility means letting people stay home once in a while to deal with the plumber, which doesn't solve anyone's ongoing family-care needs. Generally, employers prefer people in the office at least some of the time.

Plus, so many of the fastest-growing jobs and those that employ the most people in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, don't lend themselves to a work-from-home arrangement.

Take registered nurses, truck drivers, or retail workers. Those shift-based jobs can't be done from home. But they provide another kind of flexibility, and it may not come at the expense of pay.

In her research, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has found that jobs with what she calls "substitutability"—that is, jobs that don't depend on a particular person being available at a given time—offer greater flexibility without sacrificing pay, especially in high-paying fields, because workers aren't effectively always on call. 

The gender pay gap, her research has found, is widest in such fields as banking and law, where the more hours someone works, the more they get paid per hour. A highly sought-after attorney, for example, is expected always to be on call. That's what makes her valuable, and it also discourages flexibility.

Certain high-paying industries, however—including many in the fast-growing health-care sector—have managed to change that paradigm.

She notes pharmacists as an example: "You go to the pharmacy, you have a lot of faith in the fact that there's a pro there. You don't demand to see a particular pharmacist."

And a pharmacist who chooses shorter hours, she has found, doesn't lose out on higher pay, proportionally. "Pay is almost perfectly linear in hour," she writes in a review of her research. "Those who work fewer hours—say, because of family responsibilities—are paid proportionately less. Part-time work is common, especially for women. But there is almost no part-time wage penalty."

This kind of flexibility is financially better than working from home, she argues. It's "not a Band-Aid" offering flexibility for lower pay, she says. Instead, it's the flexibility to spend less time working without having to lose out on pay.

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