Do employees see flexible work policies as a plus or a minus?

Of all the perks offered in modern workplaces, none is as sought after as flexibility. While the term can be a buzzy catch all for everything from work-at-home arrangements to open-concept office spaces, flexibility is routinely ranked highest among employees’ most desired benefits.

It might come as a surprise to learn that taking advantage of workplace flexibility has actually been shown to decrease an individual’s career success due to the negative reactions of peers and managers.

Flexibility bias

According to two recent studies, a majority of employees reported perceiving (or being on the receiving end of) bias against those who regularly rearranged their work schedules — even when doing so was well within the company’s acceptable code of conduct.

The studies, which coined the term “flexibility bias,” reported data from 2,700 diverse employees around the country. Accounting for several factors that might alter results, the studies were able to prove that flexibility bias exists across a wide range of industries.

Lawsuits and health problems

Employer frustration with employees who work differently or request what can be seen as special treatment is not new. Working parents have for years reported feeling judged and unfairly penalized for working around family schedules. In fact, years of data back up their concerns. In the last decade, parental discrimination lawsuits have tripled, and more than half of those suits ended with compensation being awarded to the victims.

In addition to affecting how individuals are viewed at work, flexibility bias can take a physical toll on employees. Employees who feel under constant scrutiny report higher stress levels, increased rates of depression, and more difficulty establishing work-life balance. Not to mention, an employee who feels pressure to remain at work at all times is more likely to put off seeing a doctor for minor or routine needs.

So why do employees continue to demand workplace flexibility? And, more importantly, why do employers continue to tout it as a top benefit when workers are so often punished for taking advantage of it? Because it’s worth it, the same studies show. Employees who say they have experienced flexibility bias say that despite the problems they’ve encountered, the ability to maintain a rich and fulfilling life outside of work trumps all.

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Employers need to strike a balance

If employees sense that they will be unfairly punished for taking advantage of workplace flexibility, it’s time for employers to review their policies. No matter how generous your company’s rules might be, they’re no good if an employee worries they might hurt his or her career.

Assessing the organization

To gain a sense of how well their organization’s policies are working, employers should assess how often and by whom they’re being used. If entire departments regularly exercise flexible options while others rarely do, they should try digging into both sides.

Employers should ask each group what they like about the existing policies and how much support they feel from management when they use them. If the policies are largely ignored, companies should encourage management to lead by example and let the change start from the top.

Empowering employees to strike a healthy balance between life and work begins with good policies, continues with management execution, and ends with healthier, happier, and more committed workers.

Ann Potratz is an associate editor with J. J. Keller & Associates. She specializes in business topics such as discrimination and harassment, background checks, and security, and is the editor of J. J. Keller’s Employment Law Today newsletter and Essentials of Employment Law manual.

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