Flexible Work Arrangements: Overcoming "Flexibility Stigma"

Flexible Work Arrangements: Overcoming "Flexibility Stigma"

This article was updated on July 20, 2018.

When it comes to flexible working arrangements, employees, especially millennials, want organizations to support their desire for more work-life balance, and businesses are increasingly trying to accommodate them. According to WorldatWork, 80 percent of organizations offer flexible work arrangements to at least some of their employees, but only 37 percent have a "formal, written philosophy or policy to support employee flexibility options." Because of this disparity, many employees perceive a "flexibility stigma" connected to the use of flexible workplaces, a stigma they view as negatively impacting reputations, salaries and promotions and generally limiting career opportunities.

Destigmatizing Flexibility

What drives the "flexibility stigma," or the perception that employees choosing flexibility are less committed to their careers? As technology makes it possible for employees to work anywhere, anytime, physical presence is hardly the best indicator of productivity or leadership potential anymore. Moreover, employees are often more engaged and productive when they have the flexibility to work comfortably. Alabama-based engineering firm Intuitive Research and Technology (IRT) was named the top medium-sized employer by Great Place to Work in 2015, and flexible working arrangements were a big part of the reason. An impressive 30 percent of all IRT employees use a flexible schedule, while 10 percent of employees work compressed schedules.

So how can organizations offer flexible working arrangements while removing the stigma, as well?

Here are five suggestions:

1. Align Incentives With Outputs

Reward employees for their results, not for hours spent in the office. Define what you expect and why, but leave the how up to your employees. Changing incentives will invariably change the organizational mindset, but it's a necessary first step in adopting flexible schedules.

2. Train Managers to Manage for Results

A manager's role should be less about controlling how employees spend their time (those decisions are best left to the employees), and more about clear communication concerning work progress and resource allocations. Managers who see their role as command-and-control, for example, as a timekeeper or hall monitor, will fail in a landscape of flexible work schedules.

3. Have a Clearly Communicated Written Policy

Define what functions are subject to flexible schedules and which ones are not. Be clear about any conditions you attach to flexible arrangements, such as communication protocols and when employees must be present in the office. Removing uncertainty helps employees make better-informed decisions about the flexibility offered to them.

4. Debunk Stereotypes

Men and women who work from home could very well sit on their couches and watch television all day when they should be working. Just because an employee who has chosen a flexible schedule can be lazy, doesn't mean they are. Rather than feeding into stereotypes that employees working from home are folding their laundry or organizing their sock drawer all day, highlight their hard work and regularly communicate their value to the entire team.

5. Be Proactive, Not Reactive

"Putting flexibility on a cafeteria list of benefits is insufficient to ensure stigma-free access or use of flexible arrangements by employees," said Kathleen Christensen, Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, in a Harvard Business Review article, "Employers have to take flexibility to the next step and integrate flex into their business strategy. Transition from an employee-initiated request system into a proactive manager-initiated program supported by tools and technologies."

There's a huge gap between the percentage of organizations offering flexible working arrangements and the percentage of employees actually using them. One main reason for this gap is the stigma employees (and organizations) often attach to flexibility. To close the gap, organizations need to develop a results-driven culture and internally promote the benefits of flexible arrangements.