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Summer 2007 Vol. 51, Number 2

Flexible work: Adjusting the when and where of your job
Elka Maria Torpey


Work alternative hours

Another way to fit a job around personal schedules is to work outside the standard Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 timetable. Sometimes, alternative work schedules vary slightly from traditional ones. Other times, the differences are broader.

Depending on your preferences, it’s often possible to break out of the norm. Shift work, flexible scheduling, compressed workweeks, and compensatory time off are ways to do it.

Shift work

Night owls, early risers, or almost anyone else who wants more daytime hours free might consider working a nonstandard shift. Work shifts can start and end at any time. This section discusses night, evening, and weekend shifts, which are most conducive to schedule flexibility.

As defined by BLS, night shifts encompass any time between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. Evening shifts fall between 2 p.m. and midnight. According to a May 2004 BLS survey, most night and evening shift workers reported that they worked their shift because of the nature of the job. Others—almost 27 percent—worked these shifts primarily because of personal preference or family or childcare reasons. Still others did so to earn higher pay or to attend school.

Weekend work is another option that can make your usual weekday schedule easier to manage.

Pros and cons. Some people feel most productive at odd hours, which makes it easier for them to work early mornings, evenings, or nights. And full-time shift workers often receive employer-paid benefits.

Workers often prefer shift work because it helps them to coordinate with other family members’ schedules or to coordinate work and other responsibilities. For example, a parent who works at night can be available for his or her children during the day.

But these workers typically have to be on the job at a very specific time to start their shifts or to take over for someone else. Also, some people can’t choose their shift—and for most people, weekend work alone doesn’t provide enough income to meet expenses.

How to get it. In May 2004, about 22 million wage and salary workers—or about 18 percent of all wage and salary workers—usually worked a shift other than a daytime one, according to BLS. About 8.4 million worked evening hours, and another 3.8 million worked at night. And although many jobs have work hours only from Monday through Friday, more than 6.6 million wage and salary workers were on the job both Saturday and Sunday. Another 12.9 million usually worked either Saturday or Sunday.

Some occupations are more likely than others to have nonstandard shifts. But there are still choices.

Food preparation and serving occupations topped the list when it came to evening shifts, mirroring the hours that most restaurants are open for business. Protective service occupations, which include security guards, police, and firefighters, were among those with the highest rates of night and evening shift employment, reflecting the need for security at all hours. (See table 4, next page.)


[Table 4]


Flexible scheduling, compressed workweeks, and compensatory time off

If you don’t want a drastic change but still want more leeway in your work schedule, your best options might include flexible scheduling, compressed workweeks, or compensatory time off.

Workers who have flexible schedules—commonly called flexitime arrangements, or "flex-time"—can alter their start and stop times to fit their needs. In some arrangements, a worker’s schedule might vary daily. Alternatively, workers change their hours only periodically. But in either case, they usually must be present during certain core hours, such as between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Another distinction is often made between formal and informal flexitime programs, with most workers falling into the second category.

A compressed workweek arrangement involves working more hours on some days and having other days off. For example, a person might work 1 extra hour each of 9 days in a 10-day work period, and then take every other Friday off.

Still another possibility is compensatory time off, often called "comp time." With this arrangement, people who work more than the required number of hours are able to accumulate the extra hours, up to a specified limit, and take time off later.

Pros and cons. Variable work schedules are an inexpensive way for employers to offer their workers greater flexibility. And for many people, minor changes in schedules are all they need to help manage work and life. Plus, these arrangements usually don’t affect earnings or benefits.

Being able to arrive and leave earlier or later allows workers to avoid peak commuting times—and to work when they’re most productive. However, they might need to consider the impact of not being in the office at certain times or on the days they have off. As with other types of flexible arrangements that involve time off, people can miss important office events if they aren’t there when everyone else is.

And some workers find it exhausting, or nearly impossible, to put in the longer days required for compressed workweeks or compensatory time off.

How to get it. According to BLS, more than 36 million wage and salary workers—about 30 percent of them—were able to vary the times that they started or ended work in May 2004. Almost 29 percent of Federal Government workers, for example, had flexible schedules.

Computer and mathematical occupations had the highest percentage of workers able to vary their schedules, with more than half of these workers reporting flexible schedules. Workers in other management, professional, and related occupations—with the exception of those in education and healthcare related occupations—were also highly likely to have control over their start and stop times. Production workers, who often work on shifts, were the least likely to have flexible schedules: Only 12 percent of them had a say over the times their work began or ended.

BLS doesn’t collect data on compressed workweeks or compensatory time off. But the Families and Work Institute suggests that employers are more likely to offer compressed workweeks to some of their employees than to all of them.


For more information

This article describes some common arrangements that put you in control over how much, where, or when you work. Sometimes, these conditions overlap; for example, an at-home worker often may have greater freedom over when the workday begins and ends—and how long it lasts.

The more you know about your options, the better your chances of finding flexibility that works for you. For more information about types of flexible work arrangements, visit your local library or Career One Stop. Search online for One-Stop Career Center locations at

The May 2004 and February 2005 data in this article come from special supplements to the Current Population Survey (CPS). The 2006 data on part-time employment are CPS annual averages. For more information about the survey and its data, write to:

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Division of Labor Force Statistics
Suite 4675, 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE.
Washington, DC 20212
(202) 691-6378

Other data in the article, including those on earnings and on education and training requirements, come from the BLS Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections program. Publications issued by this program—including the Occupational Outlook Quarterly, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Occupational Projections and Training Data, and Career Guide to Industries—may be helpful in learning more about the occupations and employer types discussed in the article. Hard copies of these publications are available in many libraries and career-counselor offices. They are also available online via

Past issues of the Quarterly provide job-search and career-choice information that you might find helpful in seeking flexible work. Relevant topics include:

• "Getting back to work: Returning to the labor force after an absence," in the winter 2004-05 issue and online at

• "Matching yourself with the world of work: 2004," in the fall 2004 issue and online at

• "How to get a job in the Federal Government," in the summer 2004 issue and online at

• "Job search in the age of Internet: Six jobseekers in search of employers," in the summer 2003 issue and online at

• "Telecommuters," in the fall 2000 issue and online at

The Families and Work Institute collects additional data on flexible work arrangements. For access to these resources, write to:

Families and Work Institute
267 Fifth Ave., Floor 2
New York, NY 10016
(212) 465-2044

If your plan for creating a flexible work schedule includes starting your own business, the Small Business Administration and SCORE can help. The Small Business Administration provides information about starting a business, including how to write a business plan and what issues to consider.

Small Business Administration
409 E. 3rd St. SW.
Washington, DC 20416
Toll-free: 1 (800) 827-5722

SCORE is an association of former entrepreneurs offering free advice to small business owners. Contact:

175 Herndon Pkwy., Suite 900
Herndon, VA 20170
Toll-free: 1 (800) 634-0245

To learn more about avoiding work-at-home scams, contact the Federal Trade Commission. When writing or calling, request the publication "Ads for Business Opportunities: How to Detect Deception." Online, click on links to the press room for that and other information related to consumer fraud.

Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.
Washington, DC 20580
(202) 326-2222

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Last Updated: February 15, 2007