When is Work Flexibility a Bad Thing?

Woman working at home


Work flexibility, which can include options ranging from full-time telecommuting to flextime scheduling, has been touted as an answer for everything from work-life balance issues to climate change.
But while more flexibility is obviously a good thing for employees — especially working parents who are trying to combine a career and family caregiving — it’s not enough to help workers juggle their various responsibilities.
In fact, without solid policies to support it, too much flexibility might even be detrimental to your career. When is that the case?

When stigma holds you back professionally.

It’s not hard to see why the concept of work flexibility would appeal. Americans work a lot — 1,783 hours per week, according to the World Economic Forum. That’s more hours than workers in Canada, Spain and Sweden. It even beats the Japanese, who work 1,713 hours per week, so much that they have a term, “karoshi,” that means “death by overwork.”
Further, there are signs that things are getting worse instead of better, even for professionals whose office jobs would seem on the surface to be less grueling than those in other industries. In a recent article in The Upshot, “Women Did Everything Right. Then Work Got ‘Greedy,’” Claire Cain Miller discusses the fact that managerial jobs and “greedy professions” like finance and law increasingly demand long hours. Working families may find themselves making tough choices about which partner will invest those hours.
In male-female relationships, women often wind up paying with their professional progress. Cain Miller writes:
Just as more women earned degrees, the jobs that require those degrees started paying disproportionately more to people with round-the-clock availability. At the same time, more highly educated women began to marry men with similar educations, and to have children. But parents can be on call at work only if someone is on call at home. Usually, that person is the mother.
This is not about educated women opting out of work (they are the least likely to stop working after having children, even if they move to less demanding jobs). It’s about how the nature of work has changed in ways that push couples who have equal career potential to take on unequal roles.
The result: women often work less and therefore earn less, even after they return to full-time work. The professional impact of caregiving responsibilities on women is one reason for the persistent gender pay gap.
On the surface, it seems like work flexibility would help with that — and it can, but not if there’s a stigma associated with taking advantage of it. And, at many companies, there is a perception that workers who use flextime are less dedicated (especially if those workers are women).
At Fast Company, Anisa Purbasari Horton writes:
That’s exactly what happened to Amy Nelson, the cofounder and CEO of the women-centric coworking space The Riveter. Prior to starting The Riveter, Nelson worked as a litigator. When she had her first child, she asked her boss if she could take Wednesdays off but instead she ended up working from home instead of being off. “Very quickly, I realized that I had to take a 20% pay cut to effectively work remotely on Wednesdays,” she says. While the firm was completely receptive to her request, in the end she felt like being a flextime employee hampered her career. “It felt like [there was a perception] that I wasn’t all in, that I wasn’t engaged, and I wasn’t sure what the future of my career would look like . . . I worried what it meant to the people around me and what it signaled, and I didn’t know how it would affect my partnership track.” Nelson ended up leaving the firm to go in-house six months later.
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When it hurts the company culture.

Poorly thought-out flexible work policies can also have the unintended effect of crushing collaboration. Why? Because there are fewer opportunities to socialize with coworkers. That leads to less brainstorming and creative inspiration.
“In the entrepreneurship world, they call it ‘collision points’ where coffee spots and ping pong tables are intended to ensure employees run into each other to communicate, socialize, and build camaraderie,” says Chip Manning, director of the Babson Center for Global Commerce at Sewanee: The University of the South, speaking with Fast Company. “Flextime can run counter to this desire.”
That doesn’t mean that remote workers — or even entirely remote companies — can’t make time and space for workers to socialize and bounce ideas off one another. It just means that they have to be more intentional about it, planning regular check-ins and in-person events, if possible.
Workers can also do their bit to be proactive and reach out.
“It’s easy to fall off of the team’s radar screen if you’re a mobile worker or frequently telecommute,” writes Robin Madell at FlexJobs. “Avoid being ‘out of sight, out of mind’ by taking every opportunity to remain prominent and visible to your colleagues.”
Madell continues: “For example, if it isn’t already in place, suggest scheduling regular video chats to trade updates and share lessons learned with coworkers in the office. You can also set up weekly meetings with your manager—either via teleconference/phone or in person—to keep them posted on your projects’ progress.”
Looking for a new job with a good company culture? Read: 7 Ways to Spot a Bad Company Culture During the Job Interview.

When it's not a choice.

“Flexibility” can mean many things. For professionals in white-collar jobs, it’s often code for benefits like telecommuting privileges or a schedule that helps dodge a tough commute. But for many workers, it’s less a perk than a burden.
Part-time, contingent and gig workers have “flexible” jobs, but that flexibility is often a boon to their employers, not a benefit to them. At The New York Times, Jodi Kantor writes about one part-time worker, a Starbucks barista named Jannette Navarro, and her struggle to make her schedule work:
But Ms. Navarro’s fluctuating hours, combined with her limited resources, had also turned their lives into a chronic crisis over the clock. She rarely learned her schedule more than three days before the start of a workweek, plunging her into urgent logistical puzzles over who would watch the boy. Months after starting the job she moved out of her aunt’s home, in part because of mounting friction over the erratic schedule, which the aunt felt was also holding her family captive. Ms. Navarro’s degree was on indefinite pause because her shifting hours left her unable to commit to classes. She needed to work all she could, sometimes counting on dimes from the tip jar to make the bus fare home. If she dared ask for more stable hours, she feared, she would get fewer work hours over all.
The battle for a predictable schedule is a common one in food service jobs — so much so that some cities have started enacting fair workweek legislation that entitles workers to a consistent schedule.
And as for gig workers like ride-share drivers, Uber paid the FTC $20 million in 2017 to settle charges that the company exaggerated median earnings. (The original claim? Median earnings of $90,000 per year. The reality for the average Uber or Lyft driver, per The Street: around $9 an hour.)
Flexibility that doesn’t include livable wages isn’t really flexibility.

So, is work flexibility a bad thing, really?

Short answer: no. Longer answer: flexibility isn’t the problem. The problem is that it’s only the first step in a larger mindset shift. To create an environment that maximizes productivity and collaboration, employers will have to do more than offer flexibility. They’ll have to offer workers more autonomy and control over their workday — and make those benefits available to everyone, not just working parents (i.e., working moms).
“The old model of flexibility is broken,” says Jody Thompson in an interview with The Atlantic. “People don’t want flexible work schedules. What they want is complete control over their time.”
Thompson is the co-creator, with Cali Ressler, of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), a management technique that focuses on results, not hours worked. Ressler and Thompson developed the system when they were working in Human Resources at Best Buy in the early 2000s, and spun off the concept into a consulting firm that certifies companies in their technique.
Best Buy eventually moved away from ROWE, but other companies have implemented the system, including the GAP, Yum! Brands, Toggl and Trello.
And ROWE isn’t the only way for companies to give their workers more independence and control over their time. From unlimited vacation time to job-sharing to remote work, there are all kinds of systems that can give workers autonomy.
Then it’s up to workers to make the most of it. That means setting good boundaries — e.g., logging off at a reasonable hour and not checking work email when you wake up at 2 a.m. It also means taking time off on a regular basis. For work flexibility to work, both employers and employees have to prioritize balance.
— Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
This story originally appeared on PayScale