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Flexible working and couples’ coordination of time schedules

This research project has been completed. Please contact a team member for further information.

Flexible working and couples’ coordination of time schedules is a ground-breaking and highly innovative research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The research, which will run for one year from January 2012, uses previously unexploited data on time scheduling at home and at work to investigate what effect flexible working has on how couples coordinate their daily lives.

The ability to combine work with quality time together as a family is at the heart of the concept of work-life balance and evidence indicates that spouses value time together – indeed enjoyment of another’s company is one of the main reasons to get married in the first place.There has been much research into the availability of flexible working and its effects on a variety of individual outcomes, but there has been no investigation into the potential role of flexible work in enhancing couples’ freedom to optimise their use of time. Greater coordination of time schedules is one route by which flexible work can potentially promote household well-being, a question of paramount importance to policymakers.

The aims of the the project are to:

  • Examine whether those couples who have flexible work use it to coordinate their work schedules more than couples without flexible work, and so evaluate the importance of flexible work in promoting this aspect of work-life balance.
  • Look at the household timing of work, as opposed to individuals
  • Examine the importance of family structure on the extent of work synchronisation and the impact of flexible work

Ultimately it’s hoped the project’s findings will improve understanding of how labour market constraints affect within-household interactions and have implications for policies designed to increase the work-life balance of families.


In the 1990s, concerns emerged about the difficulties of reconciling work and personal life. These worries coincided with the continuing rise of the dual earner couple, increases in long hours working among full-time employees and evidence that many workers would like to work fewer hours. In response to these concerns, towards the end of the 90s the UK government launched a campaign to promote flexible working and began legislating for legal entitlements to request flexible arrangements.

Flexible working arrangements include things like:

  • flexitime (flexible start and finish times)
  • reduced hours
  • a compressed working week

The intention behind these entitlements was to increase employees’ control over their work schedules and enable them to better manage family commitments and personal activities. The formal legal measures were mainly targeted at parents or carers, although policy makers also stressed that work-life balance extends to workers without caring commitments too, for example those who want to pursue personal projects or improve their quality of leisure.

Although the proportion of workplaces offering flexible (or ‘family-friendly’) work arrangements has increased in recent years, households still face enormous constraints which prevent them from coordinating as much as they wish. Around 40% of workers are not working their desired number of hours and the prevalence of flexible work remains uneven across industries and types of workplace. Three-quarters of workplaces with flexitime restrict it to some categories of employee, such as non-managerial or permanent employees, and even some eligible employees may not have access. Only 38% of employees report access to flexitime and 32% to reduced hours working. Lack of flexible work options have resulted in widespread pent-up demand for flexible working: 42% of those not working flexitime would like to and 32% would like to reduce their hours.

Data and methods

The project will make use of answers to questions about flexible working in the British Household Panel Survey, which contains rich information about individuals and the households they belong to, including details of individuals’ labour market experiences and use of flexible work. In its 13th wave in 2003, the BHPS introduced a novel set of questions about work timing which, it’s believed, have never been exploited before.

People who took part in the survey were asked to report the times they usually started and finished work (up to 3 separate daily periods). Individuals working rotating shifts were asked to report start and finish times on each day for a full week. By matching spouses in the data, researchers can establish the length of time per day that neither partner is at work, and so the potential time that they can be together; all else equal, this is greater the more they synchronise their work schedules. For example, if one spouse works from 9am to 6pm and the other from 7am to 3pm, their synchronous time is from 6pm to 7am, or 13 hours (including sleep time, which is not measured).

The analysis will focus on couple households in which both partners work full time or in which the male partner works full time and the female part time (we will not analyse couples containing a part time man, since these make up only around 2% of working couples). Initial investigation indicates that we will have about 1000 dual full-time couples and nearly 750 full-time/part-time couples. Couples without children enjoy just over 14 hours of synchronous time per day on average, while couples with children get about half an hour less of potential time together per day (consistent with some de-synchronisation due to the presence of children).

Measures of flexibility are constructed from three types of questions. First, the BHPS asks the respondent about any of a range of working time arrangements: flexitime, annualised hours, term-time working, job sharing, nine-day fortnight, four-and-a-half-day week, and zero-hours contract. Of this list, those which correspond most closely to flexibility from the worker’s viewpoint are flexitime, annualised hours and job sharing. Flexitime means choosing daily work times subject to a weekly total number of hours; annualised hours means that hours are calculated over a year, with some choice over when they are worked; and under job sharing, a job normally done by one person is divided between two people.

In a separate question, people were asked whether their work hours were decided by the employer, the respondent or both jointly. And in a third question, the BHPS asks whether respondents are happy with their current working hours, or would like to increase or decrease them (at the same hourly rate of pay).

What the researchers will do

Using this novel data on work timing, the research will answer a number of specific questions:

  • What are the patterns of overlapping work schedules among households, and how do they differ across couples according to working pattern (dual full-time and part-time/full-time) and the presence of children?
  • What is the impact of flexible working on couples’ ability to coordinate their work time?
  • Does the impact depend on which partner (by gender or main/secondary earner status) has flexible work?
  • How do the effects of flexible working depend on the couples’ working pattern, and the presence of children?

The research team also hopes to find out if flexible working can mitigate the negative effect of children on spouses’ time together and whether it matters which partner has flexible work. It will also look at whether flexible work has a greater impact on a couple’s time coordination according to whether the worker is the primary or secondary earner in the couple.

The project will:

  • explore the potential for flexible working to increase couples’ ability to synchronise their work schedules
  • estimate the overall impact of flexible work
  • investigate whether there are distinct impacts among households with and without children and with different working arrangements

The project’s findings will reveal a different dimension of flexible working that could be used as important policy lever for improving work-life balance of two-earner couples, those with arguably a tighter time-constraint, as well as key insight for the formulation of policies affecting childcare arrangements.

To the extent that the work-life balance conflict is improved when couples and households spend more time together, the provision of more flexible schedules may have the potential of increasing the well-being of society. Additionally, understanding how flexible working affects the synchronisation choices of parents with small children, the findings may also inform public officials about demands for out-of-home childcare.

The researchers plan to produce an academic working paper for submission to a leading journal and to disseminate their findings to policy makers and other interested groups.

Team members

Dr Mark Bryan

Reader in Economics - University of Sheffield

Almudena Sevilla Sanz

- University of Oxford


  1. Flexible working and couples’ coordination of time schedules

    Mark L. Bryan and Almudena Sevilla Sanz

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