How ‘Flexibility Bias’ Can Hinder the Pursuit of Work-Life Balance

How ‘Flexibility Bias’ Can Hinder the Pursuit of Work-Life Balance

As HR leaders know all too well, it’s one thing to give employees a benefit, and quite another to actually get them to use it. This problem often arises around paid leave and flexibility: An organization will offer ample paid vacation, parental leave, and flexible work options, only to find that employees don’t take full advantage of these options, often because their managers, their peers, or the company culture discourages them. Even if the organization’s policy is generous, employees may fear that using their leave entitlement or working flexibly will make them look less dedicated, cause them to miss out on prestigious assignments, or otherwise hold them back in their careers.

Sociologists Lindsey Trimble O’Connor and Erin Cech examined this phenomenon, which they call “flexibility bias,” in two new studies, the findings of which they detailed at the Harvard Business Review last week:

We show that when employees see workplace flexibility bias in their organizations, they are less happy professionally and are more likely to say they will quit their jobs in the near future. Importantly, the effects of this bias aren’t limited to working mothers. Even men who don’t have kids and who have never taken family leave or worked flexibly are harmed when they see flexibility bias in their workplaces.

We also find that perceiving bias against people who work flexibly not only impacts work attitudes but also follows employees home. It increases their experiences with work-life spillover, minor health problems, and depressive symptoms, as well as leads to more absenteeism at work and worse self-rated health and sleep. These effects occur for working moms, dads, and childless women and men alike. The effect holds across age groups and racial and ethnic categories as well. …

We are not suggesting that employees have no responsibility to show up consistently and be engaged. Worker absenteeism and disengagement are undoubtedly multibillion-dollar problems in the U.S. However, when organizations ignore employees’ personal and family lives — and harbor workplace cultures that leave them afraid to ask for or use the leave and flexibility they need — organizations are likely exacerbating these problems, not solving them.

Previous survey data has suggested that many US employees don’t feel encouraged to take vacations, even when they are entitled to them on paper. Managers don’t set a good example of work-life balance, employees get mixed or negative messages about whether they should take vacations, or systems aren’t in place to ensure that an employee can take time off without disrupting their team’s flow or returning to a pile of accumulated work. Another survey of women in the tech sector found that despite enjoying world-class parental leave policies at their organizations, many new mothers felt direct or indirect pressure to cut their leave short. Yet another survey last year found that in the UK, two thirds of all employees and more than three quarters of women believed that working flexibly would have a negative impact on their career development.

The negative effects of extended leave on employees’ career trajectories are not imaginary: When working mothers take long parental leaves and request flexibility upon returning to work, this contributes to a decrease in their earning potential (the “motherhood penalty”) that is increasingly understood to be a key factor in the gender pay gap. This effect also makes dads think twice about taking paternity leave out of fear of incurring a similar “fatherhood penalty,” thus maintaining the entrenched gender imbalance in parenting responsibilities. For parents or caregivers of both genders—indeed, for any employee—long periods of leave eventually become harmful to an individual’s career.

Flexibility, on the other hand, is not necessarily detrimental to an employee’s career progression, but that depends on how well employees are supported in working flexibly, which in turn depends on a number of organizational policies and cultural norms. Professionals, particularly in the US, are working remotely more than ever before, but many employers still don’t have robust policies in place to support and manage their remote workforce.

One thing employers can do to make people feel more secure in working flexibly is to actively market these options to them, like PwC is doing with its new flexibility benefit for working parents. It’s also important to make sure flexible employees do not become isolated from their teammates or the rest of the organization, that communication protocols are clear and consistent, and taht they are evaluated fairly in comparison with their peers who work regular hours in a traditional office environment.

CEB Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council members can use our flexible work toolkit to help design an effective policy that employees feel empowered to use.