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“The future of work is flexibility.” Discuss.

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Woman stretching while working on computer from a home office

There's uncertainty around whether or not workplace flexibility is actually an employee benefit. Stefan Tomic via Getty Images

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Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, used a striking phrase yesterday. “The future of work,” Pichai wrote in an announcement to staff, “is flexibility.”

Google thinks about 20% of its employees will work remotely after its offices reopen this fall and that about 60% will work a hybrid schedule, about three days in the office and two days wherever they want. Work flexibility sounds great, but it only applies to certain jobs and industries.

If you ask labor experts what the future of work will look like, most are reluctant to commit. “The future work is uncertain,” said one. “Uh, I would say the future of work is in flux,” said another. “The future of work is not predetermined,” offered a third.

That’s Carl Van Horn at Rutgers University, Alex Colvin at Cornell University, and Jessie Hammerling at the University of California, Berkeley, respectively. And they did elaborate.

“The uncertainty has to do with not only people’s behavior, but also employers,” Van Horn said. That’s uncertainty about vaccine rules at the office or whether working from home is an employee benefit.

Colvin at Cornell said the word ‘flexibility’ is just the right amount of vague for a company like Google, which has about 140,000 workers.

“Does flexibility mean we can get rid of labor costs, we need to employees are more disposable? Or does flexibility mean flexibility in what we’re doing at work? How we do the work? Both those are flexibility, but they mean very different things to workers,” Colvin said.

And Hammerling, who studies the future of work at UC Berkeley, said those who have do their jobs in person –– at restaurants, hospitals, grocery stores –– usually make less than people who can work from home, and the pandemic has only brought more attention to this inequality in the labor market.

“It’s really important that workers have a voice and have power in shaping what the future of work will be if we want to get ourselves off our current path that leads toward more low-paid, low-road jobs,” she said.

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