Finding flexibility on the assembly line

Many people with professional jobs can manage short-term flexibility -- slipping out for an hour or two some afternoons to see a child's soccer game. But how do workers manage when they work on a production line and when their disappearance affects production quotas?

The answer is a set of informal work arrangements known as "worker agency." Researchers Lawrence S. Root and Alford A. Young Jr., both professors at the University of Michigan, described the consequences of worker agency at a mid-sized factory, a Midwestern auto-parts plant, at last week's Flexibility in the Workplace conference in Washington.

In their paper titled "Workplace Flexibility and Worker Agency," they laid out one scenario where a worker told a supervisor in advance he needed a few hours off on a Saturday afternoon to see his child in a championship game. When the time came, the supervisor said no. So the worker took off for lunch and then pleaded car trouble. The worker paid for this falsehood by being demoted, partly because, without the worker's help, the crew that day did not make its quota.

The paper describes how workers will make informal arrangements to work for each other, with one worker able to pick up a few extra overtime hours to help out. Sometimes workers will quietly pressure their supervisors for accommodations, by slowing their  pace enough to make a difference, but not enough to lead to them being disciplined. Sometimes supervisors bend the rules to accommodate workers, earning the workers' appreciation and loyalty.

In Root and Young's opinion, having supervisors bend the rules to accommodate workers is probably the best path for a couple of reasons. First of all, it acknowledges the authority of the supervisor, and secondly, it creates the least disruption on the assembly line. Option two is cooperation among the workers, which may have the disadvantage of creating a rift between first-level supervisors and workers. The third option and least useful one is the method the worker used to see his child's championship game, since it hurt production, hurt the worker and hurt the supervisor.

So what do they suggest? Employers, they say, need to have a realistic understanding of the pressures employees face in attempting to balance work and family. Formal policies for flexibility are important, they say, but so is developing a culture at the middle management level that encourages "worker agency." That is because worker agency yields other fruits -- loyalty, commitment to the job and the willingness to take initiative beyond the requirements of the job that redound to the bottom line.