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 However, we will fail to realise these benefits if we cannot tackle outdated and inaccurate misconceptions and bias against those who undertake flexible forms of work.
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.
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.
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.