Fighting the flexibility stigma

For many people, “work” is becoming less and less of a fixed physical location. A few prominent exceptions notwithstanding, forward-thinking businesses are attracting (and keeping) top talent by offering more flexible arrangements than Ye Olde 9-to-5. Collaboration solutions make it easier than ever to work closely with coworkers without always (or even often, or perhaps everbreathing the same mountain-fresh office air.


(You knew there was a “but” coming.)

You may be paying a “flexibility stigma” price if you take advantage of some of these perks. It reminds me of how some sports teams will have wink-wink “voluntary” practices. If you’re a star and want to exercise your voluntary right to stay home, probably no one will give you a hard time. But if you’re just trying to make the team / climb the corporate ladder?

“For close to thirty years, studies have consistently documented that employees who actually use workplace flexibility statutes often suffer career detriments,” reports WorkLife Law at UC Hastings.

From the cited study: “Flexibility itself has been found to trigger adverse career impact. A survey of workers in information technology found that anyone who asks for a reorganization of hours or place of work, or other measures to help balance work and family, is considered to be less committed and less of a candidate for promotion.”

On the flip side, other workers are leaving perks and opportunities on the table, motivated by a misplaced but reasonable fear that their company may not really want them to take advantage of the benefits and flexibility that they’ve offered. 32% of workers eligible for family leave decline the leave out of fear that they’ll lose their job; 43% decline because they believe their career advancement chances would take a hit. When they do take advantage of a flexible arrangement, workers often wind up working even harder (and longer total hours) than they would in a “traditional” work schedule. I’ve done that myself – and so has Sheryl Sandberg, who’s played key roles at Google and Facebook while adjusting her schedule around her personal life and nightly family dinners.

“For some women, it gives employers a reason to view them through the lens of motherhood, prompting the strongest form of gender discrimination,” Tara Siegel Bernard reported in The New York Times. “Mothers are seen as less competent and less committed to their work… But more surprising is that men who seek work flexibility may be penalized more severely than women, because they’re viewed as more feminine, deviating from their traditional role of fully committed breadwinners.”

Flexible work arrangements aren’t a right, but the ability to request flexibility without fear of reprisal may become the law of the land. Bernard points out that Vermont has already passed a law that takes steps in this direction. “With the passage of this bill, Vermont is addressing the 21st century reality that few families have full-time caregivers at home, and that workplaces need to accommodate family needs to some extent,” says UVM Professor of Economics and Women’s Studies Elaine McCrate. “Vermont workers will have the right to request flexible working arrangements, and they will be able to expect their employers to consider them seriously.”

If you’re not in Vermont, you don’t have to wait for legal protection to take the first step – which is usually to establish an open dialogue. There may be perfectly valid reasons for your business to deny various forms of flexibility and accommodation, but just being asked to think outside the 9-to-5, business-as-usual box shouldn’t require a paradigm shift anymore. The trail is already blazed. If a flexibility stigma does exist, it’s important to know about it. There’s a huge difference between businesses that truly subscribe to a “work is what you do, not where you go” mindset and those that think they’re granting you an incredible favor because you leave at 4:58 on Tuesdays so you can make your yoga class.

For more on remote collaboration and other types of flexible work arrangements, check out our posts on maximizing your work environment (wherever you work) and the rise of the remote workplace: why it matters and where it’s headed

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.