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.