As flexible scheduling becomes a more popular and widely used practice — more than three-quarters (76%) of employers offer me sort of alternative work arrangement like telecommuting or part-time hours, according to an April study from employment agency The Creative Group — companies need to reevaluate how those policies are implemented.

Erin Kelly, a professor of work and organization studies at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, sat down with Employee Benefit News to discuss how inconsistent enforcement of flexible scheduling can lead to employee dissatisfaction and low retention rates. This conversation draws from a decade-long collaborative study conducted as part of the Work, Family & Health Network that looks at what organizations are doing to benefit employers and employees and their dependents. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Employee Benefit News: Have you seen an increase in companies that offer flexible scheduling, and how is it seen among employees?

Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly

Erin Kelly: I think there’s a deep interest in working flexibly among employees across industries and in all kinds of jobs, and I believe that interest has grown. Organizations have held steady in some forms of flexibility and increased their offerings in other ways. Flexible schedules have held fairly steady over the last 15 years. The opportunities to work part-time but stay in the same job or to take an extended leave have decreased. Opportunities to work from home or telecommute have increased over time. That trend data comes from the Families and Work Institute survey of national sample of U.S. employers.

EBN: As telecommuting becomes more popular and technology enables employees to do so, why is it important for an employer to come up with a strategy?

Kelly: It’s smart for employers to respond to the interest in working flexibly, but it’s important to do that thoughtfully and not to just put a policy in place and think you’re done. From my perspective, a lot of companies put in a set of policies that I call “flexibility as accommodation,” where the individual employee makes the request and his or her manager gets to say yes or no. It makes sense that companies have set up their policies this way but it creates some unintended problems. One of those is that employees don’t know whether their manager is going to say yes or no to an individual request, and it may depend on whether you have a creative, flexible manager or you have a rather old-school manager who has different preferences. People in the same jobs may get different answers to their requests, and that creates some sense of frustration.

In addition to limited access, there’s limited acceptance of these policies even though they’re officially on the books. Sometimes, employees may be allowed to work flexibly, but they actually get penalized. There’s a sense that they got to do something unusual, they were “accommodated” in a certain way and so it makes sense that they’re not up for a promotion at the same schedule, or they don’t get the same bonus, or they don’t get the same performance review, or they don’t get the same merit increase or salary increase over time. So of course that creates a sense of frustration too. So there’s this problem with doing flexible work as an accommodation, as a one-off individually negotiated situation.

EBN: What are some strategies employers can incorporate then?

Kelly: One thing I think is an exciting arena and we see some companies moving toward different approaches, a team-based flexibility, where a whole department or unit has conversations about how we can all work flexibly. It sends a clear signal that this is truly accepted and allows people to be more careful about how they coordinate their work even though people are working at home or working variable schedules.

A second strategy that some companies are adopting now is to change the default and say, ‘We’re going to assume that people can work flexibly unless we see a concrete version that it can’t work at this time or in this particular position.’ In both of those cases, we switched the default. We recognized that people are able to work in a variety of places and that we’re asking a lot of workers how accessible and available they are to answer questions along the way.

EBN: Is the limited acceptance perpetuated by employers or fellow employees?

Kelly: It’s an interesting question. Sometimes people fear that their coworkers will view them negatively and there will be a whole lot of backlash. There are two things around that fear. First, the research around coworker backlash is very limited. It makes sense, and maybe it’s out there, but I haven’t seen much research on it. Second, your coworkers are going to be frustrated if there’s an accommodation staff policy; if some people get it and some people don’t, that is where you’d be creating the condition for frustration or backlash.

The research on flexibility stigma has mostly looked at how managers evaluate people who are using flexible work practices. This is a really active area of research and the findings are still developing, but pretty consistently we see evidence that people who work at home are often judged negatively, that they’re seen as less committed or less competent. It’s seen as reasonable to give them fewer rewards or fewer promotion opportunities or be less likely to recommend them for a special assignment, whereas people who shift their hours just a little bit but are still working full time face fewer of those penalties or negative evaluations.

EBN: Does one group in particular, like men or women, suffer more from flexibility stigma?

Kelly: The use of flexible work arrangements is fairly similar for men and women, but there is some interesting research that suggests the evaluation or social judgments tied to working at home may be different for men and women. For example, there’s a possibility that mothers working at home are viewed as the woman splitting her attention and time in a way that would be negative for her work. The dads are evaluated more positively, perhaps because they are seen as unusually involved and there’s an assumption that they’ll also take care of their work.

There’s other research by Lisa Leslie and Colleen Manchester that didn’t look at gender or parental status, but looked at what does your manager assume the reason for your flexible work arrangement is. If the manager believes that you’re working at home for some productivity reason, then that’s viewed positively. If the manager assumes you’re working at home for a family reason, then that’s judged negatively. One implication of that research is that managers need to be really careful that they don’t make assumptions about some people’s flexible work arrangements and the reasons behind them but instead look at what does the job require, can this person work flexibly and still get the work done, and how can I evaluate the work product or the results coming from this person rather than judging when and where they’re doing the work.

EBN: What can employers do to make sure managers are going through those processes?

Kelly: It’s useful to go beyond the common or standard flexible work arrangement policy, just putting that in place and leaving it up to managers or asking HR specialists to coach managers. The more it can be seen as part of a culture change initiative; either teams sit down and talk through how they’re going to work together and how they can work flexibly and effectively, or the policy is written in a way that it flips the default and managers would have to justify saying no to a request rather than having the employee have to motivate a request. Either of those strategies would encourage people to talk this out in more details and to go beyond flexibility as a few changes around the margins for a few people.

EBN: So what’s the big picture? Why should employers care to make changes?

Kelly: In many white-collared jobs today, we’re asked to be flexible in the sense of employees are asked to respond to high workloads and questions that come in from managers or coworkers or clients, we have the technology that allows us to almost be always on. Working flexibly but being thoughtful about that can allow people to set appropriate boundaries to work when, where and how it makes sense for them, but to also recognize that it’s important to have some time away from work in order to be able to contribute over the long term and have a sustainable career. The big picture there is we are working flexibly. When we try to do that and live up to old norms of being in the office and being visible and being always accessible, then that’s a recipe for burnout. Taking charge of how we do our work, and part of that is being open to new forms of flexibility, can encourage better work and better life and help people work effectively over the long term.

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