The problem of flexible and remote worker bias & how to overcome it

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Flexible forms of work have long been associated with bias and stigma. A glance through many newspaper headlines about working from home in particular, will portray a negative picture of skiving and lazy workers all trying to avoid proper work in the office. 

Academic research first identified the problem of ‘flexible working stigma’, where employees undertaking flexible work are thought to be less committed or motivated, or cause more work for others.  Flexible work is also associated with poor career outcomes for those who undertake it; part-time work in particular is often referred to as ‘career death’, leading to professional stagnation and a lack of progression. 

Remote work brings its own specific challenges. Put simply, remote work can mean out of sight, out of mind from a pay and progression point of view.  Pre-pandemic, managers were often concerned about lack of visibility of remote workers.  How could they ensure productivity and guard against malingering?  The pandemic enforced period of homeworking should have put this particular concern to bed once and for all, as overwhelmingly people reported being as least as productive, if not more so, when compared to working full-time in the office.  However, beliefs about the benefits of in-person work remain strong – even if they lack evidence.  Those employees who are resisting are often ‘flex shamed’ – seen as problematic and lazy. 

There are cognitive biases at play with remote work too.  We naturally default to people who whom we are in close proximity – meaning that those who work remotely are placed at a disadvantage to those who go into a physical workplace, especially in terms of their opportunity to have their voice heard at work.

When implemented well, flexible and remote work brings many benefits to individuals and the organisations that employ them.  There is no evidence that those who seek to work flexibly are less committed or motivated, less productive, or less career orientated than those who work more traditionally.  There is however evidence that remote and flexible working can be good for talent attraction and retention, employee engagement and motivation, inclusion, and wellbeing. However, we will fail to realise these benefits if we cannot tackle outdated and inaccurate misconceptions and bias against those who undertake flexible forms of work.

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Overcoming bias and misconceptions

Solving this challenge is complex – there are no quick fixes to changing hard wired beliefs and cognitive bias.  There are however some steps that both organisations and individuals can take.

  1. Call out flexible working micro-aggressions. Micro-aggressions are verbal or behavioural slights that might on the face of it appear minor but actually betray bias and discriminatory attitudes.  For example, jokes about ‘going home early’ to a part-time worker or about shirking when someone is working from home contribute to a hostile environment and perpetuate stereotypes. 
  2. Share the research. A body of research is now developing, from during enforced homeworking and beyond, about the benefits of remote and flexible working.  This can be used to challenge outdated assumptions about people who work flexibility.  When we talk about the benefits, as organisations and individuals, we can slowly chip away at the stereotypes. 
  3. Develop a strategy for visibility. Employees need to have a personal plan to balance against proximity bias and being out of sight and out of mind. This can include maximising visibility when in the physical workspace and when online – promoting personal brand and sharing achievements.
  4. Manage your boundaries. As an employee, being aware of negative assumptions can lead to overcompensating, working longer and harder.  This in turn can lead to burnout and poor work life balance. Flexible workers need to establish and maintain personal boundaries about when and how they work. This won’t tackle the assumptions – but they will help to prevent them from having a personal, negative impact. 
  5. Raise awareness of known biases. The potential biases and assumptions about flexible workers are known and understood. Raising awareness of these, especially amongst managers and others in positions or organisational power, is a first step to reducing their influence. Organisations should train managers about these biases and implement systems to monitor for them.

As flexible forms of work become more normalised after the pandemic there is the possibility that some of these problematic beliefs and assumptions will fade away over time.  In the meantime, those of us that do work flexibly should be loud and proud to do so. 

About the author

Gemma is an experienced HR professional, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD, Fellow of the HEA, Certified Business and Management Educator and author of How to Work Remotely (published by Kogan Page, July 2022). She is a lecturer in the Business School at Liverpool John Moores University as well as running her own business The Work Consultancy where she focuses on policy development, flexible and hybrid working and wellbeing.  Gemma was one of the ‘Most Influential Thinkers in HR’ in 2021 and 2022.

Gemma is a qualified mediator and coach, and a regular speaker and writer on a variety of HR topics including employee engagement, flexible and hybrid working, and wellbeing.   

Gemma Dale

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