Work Flexibility Practices Can Help OR Hurt Your Career

By: Matthew J. Grawitch, Ph.D.

A lot is made these days of the importance of creating a flexible work environment so that employees can develop a better work-life interface. Flextime, telecommuting, compressed work weeks, and other innovations in work schedules are supposed to assist employees in managing their demands across different life domains – without having to sacrifice productivity.

Unfortunately, a recent article in the Academy of Management Journal suggests that manager assumptions about why employees utilize work flexibility practices can bias a manager’s perceptions of evaluations of those employees.

If managers believe employees utilize flexible work practices for productivity reasons, they are likely to make positive attributions about employees regarding their commitment to the organization. On the other hand, if managers believe employees utilize flexible work practices for personal reasons, they are likely to make significantly less positive attributions about employees regarding their commitment to the organization.

Therefore, two people in an organization can utilize the exact same flexible work benefit and be evaluated – even by the same manager – in a very different light, regardless of actual differences in productivity or work quality. This can have implications for employee career progression within an organization, because manager evaluations and recommendations often carry a fair amount of influence. If the manager believes an employee lacks commitment to the organization s/he may not provide the strong recommendation needed for promotion. Employees may be missing out on promotion opportunities, while organizations may fail to capitalize on the full potential of some employees.

To address this situation, employees need to ensure that they know where their manager stands with regard to flexible work practices. Just because an organization has a policy that permits the use of flexible work practices doesn’t mean that utilizing those practices comes without a cost to the employee. Here are some suggestions:

  • Build rapport with your manager. Your manager is less likely to make negative assumptions about you if s/he has respect for you and your performance.
  • Make sure you are not shortchanging the business. Working from home or flextime can lend themselves to abuse fairly easily – even if that abuse is unintended (e.g., too many people drop by knowing you are working from home, which disrupts your concentration and focus). You are accountable for managing your work flexibility appropriately.
  • Ensure you show the business results for your productivity. All too often, employees assume that managers can “see” how much more productive they are when they have increased flexibility. Sometimes, though, it can be good to show managers the evidence to help them reach that conclusion. Don’t rely on your manager to look for it.

And there is something the organization can do as well. Work with managers to understand the benefits of the flexible work practices within the organization. Top-down decisions regarding flexible working are likely to be met with resistance at various levels of the managerial hierarchy. If you fail to get members of that hierarchy on the same page, the benefits of work flexibility for the organization will likely be reduced, and if there is too much resistance, work flexibility may show no benefits at all. Therefore, organizations need to remember to utilize proper change management techniques when trying to create a more flexible work environment.

Accountability is important to work flexibility. Employees need to be held accountable for their performance when they exercise flexibility. Managers need to be held accountable for their behaviors regarding flexible working for their employees. And senior leaders need to be held accountable for ensuring that flexible work practices are implemented in ways that are good for the organization and its employees.

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