Flexible work schedules for employees looks like it puts workers on a very long leash, but it actually puts workers on quite a short leash, says Dr. Ellen MacEachen, a scientist and sociologist at the Institute for Work & Health.

She and her colleagues interviewed managers and employees at 30 mid-sized high-tech companies in Ontario because they wanted to look at a new emerging sector just to what it was like and see how it might challenge ideas about work and health.

“We found that workers were very flexible there,” she says. “They worked very flexible hours, they could work at home or work at the office and that became a very key theme for us is flexible work.”

Companies said their employees were free to work on their own or at home and whenever they want. But in knowledge work like this, the managers couldn’t actually watch employees work because they didn’t have the up-to-date expertise to know how the employees should be doing their work.

“We found that because the managers weren’t able to understand or evaluate the details of the process of the work,” Dr. MacEachen explains, “they focused on output and deadlines.”

On the other hand, managers had very little understanding of how the work was done and if someone works flexible hours, it could be hard to determine if a health problem is related to work or something else.

Because the pace is so fast in this industry, flexibility actually functioned to help the work to carry on almost all the time.

“The managers would talk about [flexibility] being great because the workers could actually go home and see their kids at suppertime and then keep working at home, she says. “The implication of that was that it was very nice because it gave the workers a lot of freedom, but in a way they can never get away from work.”

Dr. MacEachen and her team found that these companies focused on health and wellness in a different way than traditional firms. For instance, there might be a stocked fridge, comfortable sofas or a ping pong table in the office to keep workers happy.

“I think that flexibility is a very natural evolution for this type of work. It’s more focused on individual workers than on the work environment,” she says. “The main irony is that the flexible work actually looks so good, but it might be a very, very demanding environment.”

To comment on this story email craig.sebastiano@rci.rogers.com.