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We need to talk about flexibility stigma

Last updated on 
March 9, 2020

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The rise of flexible working is impossible to ignore. More and more companies around the world are embracing the idea that you don’t need to be chained to a desk from 9-5 to do a good job, and the prevalence of remote working – the most “extreme” form of flexible work – has rocketed by 115% since 2005. But in spite of its rising popularity, flexible work still gets a bad rap. So much so that a new term has been created: flexibility stigma. But what exactly is flexibility stigma and why is it such a big issue? More importantly, is your workplace guilty of it and, if so, what can you do about it?

What is flexibility stigma?

Flexibility stigma is a new term for an age-old perception: that people working flexibly contribute less. Many employers and managers – particularly those who started out before the flexible work phenomenon took off – still struggle to view flexible work as viable or credible. They might see it as an easy option, believing people want to work flexibly to work less. They may view it as a privilege bestowed on lazy people who don’t want to come into the office. But this outlook isn’t just archaic; it’s incorrect.

The idea that people want to work remotely to work less contradicts studies suggesting that flexible workers are plagued by constant productivity guilt. Further research by Heejung Chung, a sociology and social policy lecturer at the University of Kent, found that flexible workers put in nearly four hours more overtime than standard office workers. This is often because they’re aware of the flexibility stigma and feel obliged to counter it. By working more hours, not less, they’re trying to show people that they’re just as productive as people in the office.

Research also suggests that flexible workers are actually more productive than office workers. Studies repeatedly show that flexible workers are more productive and engaged, happier and feel more valued, take fewer sick days, believe they get more done, and report higher levels of job satisfaction. At this stage, the practical benefits of flexible work are pretty much non-negotiable... so why does this stigma still exist?

What’s so dangerous about flexibility bias?

At its base level, flexibility stigma can be seen as a simple fear of the unknown. Older people didn’t grow up in a world where they had the option of working remotely, or figuring out their own hours, and so they may see it as a transient and flaky “millennial fad”. But working remotely or flexibly isn’t a trend – it’s the future of work. Neither is it code for slacking off, and continuining to hold this viewpoint in spite of all evidence isn’t just outdated... it’s actively harmful.

Ultimately, flexibility stigma stems from a major lack of trust. It’s a perception that believes people need to be visibly seen to be working, in order to actually be working. But interestingly, this has itself bred one of the most needlessly destructive workplace cultures going: office presenteeism. With presenteeism, work becomes performative, with people coming into the office early and staying  well beyond their contractual hours. It isn’t about working harder (in fact, one UK study revealed office workers are actually only productive for 3 hours each day) – it’s about visually communicating dedication.

Presenteesim is one of main causes of today’s prevalent “culture of hustle” – a way of working, particularly among young people, that lionizes long hours. In this new world, where people stay late because everyone else is, being seen as a “workaholic” is something to strive for – not something that suggests your work/life balance is way off.

But there’s another important reason why flexibility stigma is so troubling: it fosters structural sexism. Women have historically been at a disadvantage in the workplace due to outdated beliefs, the gender pay gap, maternity leave and child-rearing duties, to name a few. While flexible working has gone some way to counter this, a 2016 report by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 77% of mothers had a negative experience during or after maternity leave because of the stigma attached to it: 20% had experienced negative comments about flexible working; and 11% felt forced to leave their job. Where flexible working can help to level the economic playing field, flexibility stigma serves to drive women out of the office.

Breaking down flexibility stigma

So what can be done about flexibility stigma? Firstly, it’s important that employers recognize just how valuable flexible work is – both for employees and employers. Among younger people, being able to work flexibly isn’t seen as a perk, but a necessity. Candidates now expect some form of flexible working from potential employers, and will make job decisions based on a company’s attitude towards it. For many people, flexibility is more important than a pay rise. As the millennial workforce gradually takes the reigns, companies that don’t offer flexible working will soon get left behind.

To stay relevant and retain employees, companies must actively work to break down their unconscious paternalism and ensure flexibility stigma doesn’t cloud any of their policies. A parent-child working relationship – where employers believe they need to watch over employees, or at least have them in the office – is detrimental to both trust and employee happiness. Treating employees like adults means trusting that they know how they work best.

Finally, it means building a more trusting and open work culture. “Almost all policies are designed around the tiny minority of people who are going to behave badly,” says former HR director of the BBC Lucy Adams. “But they are, unfortunately, applied to everybody.” Taking this closed approach limits your relationship with employees, and may have a knock-on affect on company-wide dialogue, feedback and pscyhological safety – all of which are essential for creating an engaged and effective workforce.  

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