Rumours of flexibility stigma have not been greatly exaggerated

Rumours of flexibility stigma have not been greatly exaggerated

Long before the pandemic, many people have wanted more flexible working conditions. But companies have long resisted embracing change, despite the well-documented benefits of allowing employees more control over how they work. Even though in the UK every worker has the right to request flexible working, the employer has the final say. A recent TUC poll [1] found one in three requests for flexible working were being turned down and that flexi-time was unavailable to over half of the UK workforce, rising to nearly two-thirds for people in working-class occupations. Flexible working has tended to be ‘seen’ quite simply as doing less work.

Less time in the office has worked against flexible workers

Seeing only what people are doing in front of you, and not accounting for what they are doing out of sight can create an inaccurate perception of their activity. People who have been able to adopt flexible working arrangements have tended to face a flexibility stigma - the negative perception that they are contributing less, are less productive and less committed to the workplace.

The office is an interesting hotbed of behavioural biases. Flexibility stigma has continued for so long because it has been subject to confirmation bias. The tendency to view flexible working as undesirable because it supports the belief that it’s somehow a benefit and can make it easier to cover up working less hard or less effectively.

However, those who need flexibility often have important responsibilities to juggle alongside being in the office. They place a high value on time as a scarce resource and need to be very effective during intervals they have allocated to get work done. These intervals are not only ‘company standard’ office hours but additional time they may work outside of these hours, which aren’t observed by office colleagues or managers.

Flexibility stigma has interesting parallels with a legacy of office presenteeism - the idea that ‘good’ workers have to be in the office. As we embrace a new paradigm of work in which everyone will spend less time in the office, the idea that ‘good’ workers can be defined by how much time they spend in the office will be exposed. If we think about workplace wisdom as bringing different people together to drive innovation, enabling relevant workers to work flexibly and contribute at their productive best will have been negatively impacted by this uniformity of thinking.

Hybrid hours will reduce office hours for everyone

As people come to the office less, not only will each other’s physical visibility start to vary, but so will the visibility of the work they are doing as they no longer remain co-located or work concurrent hours. Businesses will need to recognise that office and remote hours will be different. As hybrid teams will not all work at the same times, the perception of ‘observed effort’ in the office as a measure of greater commitment or endeavour has to be overcome.

Hybrid working has the potential to level out imbalances and stigmas that have frustrated many, including women, aiming to return to or progress a meaningful career while balancing outside and domestic demands. This new workstyle paradigm is an opportunity for those who previously needed to be stricter about office time in order to cope with outside responsibilities that demanded their time.

Hybrid teamwork can make everyone equally visible

Visibility is now multichannel - physical and virtual

Equipping teams to share and retrieve ongoing work at different times and to document their work and progress in a uniform way can equalise their visibility. This could help those with considerable outside demands who want the flexibility to work from home, to worry less about being physically seen, or observed. If desired outcomes now rely on hybrid teamwork, then each member would have the opportunity to promote their own milestones openly no matter where or what hours they work.

An effective method that can improve how teams communicate to support asynchronous interactions will also help to encourage managers and employees alike to actively focus on collective effort and promote more dynamic interactions amongst the team. Managers will need to balance the efforts of status-conscious team members who continue to flag their achievements, with others who may have previously taken quieter comfort working alongside their more outspoken colleagues. These more understated employees will see how to become more vocal about their progress.

Status-conscious workers will naturally gravitate towards presence in the office and will be used to documenting their progress in a public way. But they should not need to feel there is a cost to their reduced ‘exposure’ where their time in the office is less than before. Firstly, they can use their more limited time in the office specifically for managing their image and connecting to key stakeholders. Secondly, and more benevolently, they can lead by example in demonstrating the value of mapping out work, sharing knowledge and how to make sure others know about their achievements that other more modest team members can follow.

Individuals who used to occupy more peripheral positions in the physical team network, can level up their visibility in a hybrid setting. This will have a positive reinforcement effect on broader inclusion, the more community-like teams become. A hybrid work method that unites the team in principle disincentivises any one team member to try to take more credit than they are due, and more critically, enables managers to assess achievements more equitably.

Using the office more effectively

Businesses being explicit about the changing purpose of the office, about it being a space to connect and collaborate, is a positive development. It means people can feel able to move around, meet and talk to others; picking up those impactful nuggets of information ‘on the go’. People aren’t going to be back in the office with a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the back of their chairs. If we can protect focus time during remote hours - the days we are not in the office - to get work done, the office space is not about people booking available desks. Orchestrating who is in when based on what they plan to work on will be a key feature of office planning going forward.

Firms that adapt well to novelties

In its most recent report the ONS[2] found that good management practices made it easier for firms to adapt to novel practices like home working during the pandemic. Clues as to which firms adapted well and are likely to adapt equally well to new working patterns in the future are emerging as they start to announce their return to work policies. Businesses who make it clear they plan to remain heavily oriented around presenteeism, however, are going to make their employees worried about remaining as physically visible as possible, for the wrong reasons.

The future of work is the biggest global organisational change in living history, throwing workplace inequality and entrenched behaviours into sharp relief. If the goal posts shift, as they should, towards rewarding output over observed effort, businesses can no longer allow themselves to make assumptions of accomplishment that are shaped by physical presence in the office.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is hybrid working?

Hybrid working is a type of flexible working that enables employees to work part of the week in the office and part remote. There are a number of hybrid working patterns such as three days in the office and two days remote, commonly called 3:2. Depending on the company, the remote time may also have some flexibility of working hours as well to enable people to choose the best times of the day to perform their work.

What is flexi-time?

Flexi-time, or flexible hours, is a type of flexible working that enables you to work to a different schedule from what is standard across your company.  This provides an employee with greater control over their start or finish time whilst still working the same contracted hours.  Flexible hours are usually available at the employee’s discretion around core hours which must be worked, e.g. 10.30 am to 3.30 pm.

What does ‘flexibility stigma’ mean?

Flexibility stigma can be understood as the perception that workers who use flexible working arrangements are less productive and less committed to the workplace. Even when flexible working arrangements are available in corporate policies, workers may not feel comfortable requesting or taking up flexible working arrangements if flexibility stigma is prevalent in their workplaces.

What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is seeing only what you expect to see. It is the tendency to search for, interpret and favour information in a way that is likely to be compatible with one's prior beliefs or values.

“Confirmatory bias .. favours uncritical acceptance of suggestions and exaggeration of the likelihood of extreme and improbable events.” Daniel Kahneman; Thinking, Fast and Slow.

“These biases don’t just prevent us from applying our intelligence. They can actually contort our intelligence into a weapon against the truth ….. The tragedy is that we’re usually unaware of the resulting flaws in our thinking.” Adam Grant; Think Again.

What is presenteeism?

The impression (explicitly or implicitly) given that ‘observed effort’ in the office is a measure of greater commitment or productivity. Businesses that have made it clear they plan to remain heavily oriented around presenteeism post-Covid are more likely to express concerns about hybrid working than businesses that adapted well to home working during the pandemic. The former may be worried about losing control, whereas the latter accept that flexible working practices enable their employees to work in a pattern that improves their productivity, resulting in benefits for the business, the employee and the customer.

What is asynchronous communication?

Asynchronous communication effectively means a conversation between two (or more) people where one person’s input happens at a different time than the other’s input or feedback; that is, the conversation is not taking place simultaneously or in real-time. Asynchronous communication is the norm for groups of people who do not work concurrent hours or who work flexible hours, or for people who work remotely all the time.


1. TUC Poll
2. ONS Poll