Moving Beyond the Flexibility Stigma

June 11, 2019

Moving Beyond the Flexibility Stigma

Despite the promise and benefits of flexible work arrangements, many organizations are facing a usability problem—that is, even though flexible work arrangements are increasingly offered at the organizational level, many employees are simply not taking advantage of them.  

Flexible work arrangements have provided an immensely promising avenue for addressing work-life conflict, especially for caregivers responsible for the well-being of others outside of work (children, aging parents, etc.). Research suggests flexible schedules help employees better manage the nexus between their work and personal lives, with additional benefits such as increased job satisfaction, gratitude felt for one’s employer, and decreased stress. Many of these benefits come from affording employees the control to customize schedules instead of mandating a one-size-fits-all approach to work. 

Despite the proven benefits of flexible work, organizations that have implemented these arrangements may not be seeing the hoped-for uptick in usage. Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, suggests this stems from a “flexibility stigma.” 

This stigma drives the usability problem—while employees realize the value of flexible work arrangements, they avoid using it for fear of being stigmatized as anything less than an “ideal worker.” Ironically, employees who use flexible work options may feel inclined to work even longer and harder to prove themselves “worthy,” which negates some of the benefits of using the benefit in the first place. This fear is rooted in a real issue—when people (and particularly fathers) take advantage of or ask for flexible work, they receive more negative reactions and are often given poorer overall performance ratings. This, in turn, can impact longer-term career advancement and promotion potential. 

It is important to note the flexibility stigma generally arises not from a lack of organizational support, but from a lack of support from the employee’s boss, peers, or direct work group. 

HR executives have an important role to play in minimizing the flexibility stigma.  Here are four actionable strategies that personnel leaders can adopt to achieve this goal.

1. Train and coach leaders on the benefits that support flexible work arrangements. Provide managers with resources to understand the business case for flexible working arrangements, as well as the behaviors that demonstrate support for their use. All too often, managers send subtle signals they don’t support flexible work arrangements not because they don’t want their employees to be successful, but because they simply don’t understand the value this arrangement can bring, both in terms of employee engagement and tangible workplace results. 

For example, one woman who worked remotely two days a week recounted how her boss would constantly ask “where are you today?” on her remote working days. On the surface, this seems like a harmless statement, perhaps even one that the boss thought was building camaraderie, but from the employee’s perspective, it signaled that her boss lacked trust in her. The repeated comment from her boss made her feel uncomfortable taking advantage of the ability to work remotely due to the perceived lack of support from her supervisor. Training leaders and managers to drop these statements in favor of more supportive, inclusive commentary is an important mechanism for creating a culture where flexible work is valued and understood.

2. Make flexible work arrangement success stories highly visible. Spotlight role models in the organization who utilize flexible work arrangements while getting extraordinary results in their position. Using specific examples can help leaders understand that flexible schedules strengthen employee commitment and loyalty to the organization. For some leaders, seeing is believing, and all the training and coaching won’t make a difference if they can’t point to a concrete example of its benefits and outcomes in action.

3. Provide clear expectations and ‘rules of the road’ regarding what flexible work is and is not. Flexible work does not mean that employees can come and go as they please without keeping their bosses and coworkers informed. It also doesn’t negate the fact that responsive, engaged, and available employees are still highly valued and necessary, especially in certain industries. For flexible work to be effective, it is critical to create and maintain an open flow of communication, outline clear and shared expectations, and specify rules of the road. For example, a leader may require all flexplace workers to be present for a daily staff meeting from 11 a.m. to noon, and then beyond that, their time is flexible. These parameters provide a foundation for success that considers the given industry, context, and working styles of a particular group. 

Following protocol is a two-way street. Just as the employee is obligated to abide by a set of rules, so too is the organization. It is important to encourage consistent enforcement of the proper use of flexible work arrangements companywide. Essentially, it becomes an organizational imperative that’s modeled and reinforced across the company.  

4. Employ technologies and processes to facilitate team-building. Flexworkers, though benefiting their well-being through using flexible work options, may feel lonely and “out of sight, out of mind” when they’re not pulled into important meetings and discussions. HR and talent management can help leaders put mechanisms in-place to ensure that flexworkers feel heard and valued as employees, even if they don’t get as much face-time as traditional employees.

It appears that flexible working arrangements are here to stay—in fact, a recent study suggests that flexible working will continue to be an increasing trend and that millennials, in particular, will be likely to trade in other work benefits for better work flexibility. The need to address the flexibility stigma, then, is not going to diminish, and like most workplace issues, it won’t simply go away on its own. 

The Authors: 

Stefanie Mockler, M.A., is a consultant and Head of Research and Client Insights at Vantage Leadership Consulting.