How firms are breaking down flexible working stereotypes
Old attitudes around presenteeism don’t fit with hybrid working
Hybrid working may now be taking off around the world but not all senior leaders and managers are comfortable with breaking from the decades-old norm of spending five days a week in the office.
Even in progressive companies, long-held negative stereotypes can persist.
“There are still harmful stereotypes that people working remotely are less productive or that flexible work means a loss of collaboration because people aren’t in the same space,” says Blessing Buraimoh, Head of Diversity & Inclusion, EMEA Workforce Advisory at JLL.
The pandemic revealed both the benefits and the pitfalls of remote work. “One of the key things we learned is that many jobs can be done more flexibly, and that this flexibility benefits employees’ work-life balance,” says Buraimoh.
Yet the rapid shift to remote work meant that many employees experienced stress and burnout as they grappled with new work-life boundaries, impacting their productivity and their motivation.
This may have contributed to harmful stereotypes about working out of the office, says Martina Williams, Head of Work Dynamics, DACH and CEE at JLL.
“Managers weren’t prepared to handle this new way of working when they couldn’t see employees face-to-face,” she says. “There was a lack of trust that people could be as effective, because the pandemic interrupted how work was typically done, and the level of employee engagement was sometimes lower at home.”
Confronting the proximity bias
In a LinkedIn study of around 250 C-suite executives in November 2021, around a third cautioned that colleagues and managers could favour those they regularly see in the office while 35 percent also voiced concerns about employees feeling excluded from new opportunities or promotions.
This ‘proximity bias’ can have negative long-term implications for employees and the companies they work for.
Trying to juggle demanding work and home lives without built-in flexibility can increase stress levels and negatively impact wellbeing. Burnt out staff or those who feel sidelined in a two-tier system do little for company morale or productivity.
While this proximity bias disproportionately impacts women who, during the pandemic were more likely to work flexibly, men also feel pressure from employers to stick to traditional office working patterns.
“Companies need to acknowledge that every employee has a different background and different needs which may not be accommodated in traditional working patterns,” says Williams.
For example, some managers may assume that only working parents with childcare priorities need flexible hours, shutting off employees with other caregiving or personal responsibilities from requesting flexible hours for fear of seeming uncommitted to their job.
“It’s important that we don't fall into a narrow definition of flexible working, that it means working from home,” says Buraimoh. “People may have different circumstances where they need, for example, part-time or term-time hours or the opportunity to take a sabbatical.”
With employee expectations of work-life continuing to evolve, forward-looking companies are now taking steps to reposition flexible working as a positive tool to support wellbeing and productivity.
Team leaders are being better trained in managing remote employees, including assessing performance on goals or outcomes instead of time input or presenteeism.
“Companies should, where possible, make flexible work a default position,” says Buraimoh. “They should use positive language to speak openly about its benefits and the importance of enabling people to work flexibly.”
This includes sharing employee stories to demonstrate how different people benefit from flexible working and ensuring that individuals have clear lines of communication to their managers.
Creating connections between colleagues at all levels is also important to build compassion.
“The more you communicate, the better you understand the context in which others are working, enabling a more inclusive environment,” says Williams. “Leaders need to create engagement touchpoints, whether virtual or in-person, where employees can network and have those watercooler moments that are vital to building communities.”
Establishing ground rules for what’s expected in flexible working arrangements equally helps build trust in new workplace processes and address concerns about falling behind. And while employee surveys help articulate staff needs, employers also need to ensure they’re taking action on what’s said and setting realistic standards for everyone to meet.
Flexibility as a recruitment tool
As hybrid working gains momentum, companies are finding that offering greater flexibility in how, where and when people work has become a central part of their strategies to attract and retain skilled employees in a competitive jobs market.
“Companies that address diversity and inclusion, listen to their employees and have strategies to engage their people stand to have long-term success,” says Williams.
It all points to a longer-term shift in how companies perceive and manage their employees.
“Employer support goes a long way to building trust and encouraging employees to stay,” says Buraimoh. “People want to work for companies where they can be themselves, in an environment that enables them to be productive.”