Will workers continue to pay a price for flexibility?

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Employees with non-traditional working arrangements have been punished in pay and promotions alike. As flexible work becomes the norm, can we end the penalty?

It’s almost hard to remember a time before the pandemic when working flexibly was the exception, rather than the norm. Whether flexibility meant keeping different hours to the normal 9-to-5 structure or the ability to work outside the office, those whose jobs were structured atypically stuck out as different to their colleagues. 

And often, they paid a price; those who did secure a flexible role were likely to find that their working pattern came with a pay or progression penalty linked to negative perceptions of flexible work. This especially impacted women, who were twice as likely to work flexibly as men. 

Yet the upheaval we’ve experienced over the past two years – and the fact that millions of employees of all kinds across many industries have proved that flexible work can be highly productive – may have shifted these perceptions. Leaders and decision-makers who might previously have frowned on flexible working have had the chance to experience a different way of working themselves, and many found they liked it. In fact, numerous major organisations have stated they do not plan to make a full-time return to the office, in spite of easing lockdown measures in some countries. 

With such a significant shift, those who want to work flexibly may well be hoping that negativity associated with non-traditional working patterns will have disappeared. But it may not be so simple; presenteeism remains a powerful force, and work cultures still favour those who spend more time with managers. 

With these factors in play, will the flexible work penalty come back into full force when workers are asked to return to the office, however many days a week – or have the last two years changed perceptions around flexible work for the better? 

A “want” rather than a “need” 

Traditionally, unconventional work set-ups were much more likely to be the preserve of mothers juggling childcare with the demands of their career. Yet the enforced shift to widespread remote working – and the fact that many people have subsequently embraced it – has meant that flexible work is no longer reserved for female caregivers. 

Three-quarters of UK workers now say work-life balance is more important to them than it was pre-pandemic, and employers are starting to respond to this. The number of jobs advertised as remote has increased by roughly 20% since 2020, as demand increases, and both companies and staff alike have begun to understand that wanting to work flexibly is not necessarily negative or due to a lack of commitment. For many workers, it’s become about how their career fits with their lifestyle – it’s a ‘want’ rather than a ‘need’ that can help increase their quality of life.

There will always be a bit of a premium for being physically in the office – Alok Alström

“Flexible work carried much more stigma pre-pandemic,” says Molly Johnson-Jones, co-founder of Flexa, a company that assesses the flexible working policies of major organisations. “Before, those who hadn’t worked regularly from home assumed that it meant working less hard. Now, because everyone has been forced to work from home and they’ve still been productive, those pre-conceived notions of what working from home means have been dispelled.” 

The number of newly created flexible roles reflects this mindset shift; pre-pandemic, finding a flexible role could be a battle, with demand vastly outstripping supply. In the UK only 15% of jobs were advertised as flexible in 2019, significantly less than the 87% of employees who wanted flexibility in their role. Now, however, millions of roles have that flexibility built in, whether shifting to entirely remote or hybrid set-ups. 

This could be good news for women – the comparatively high uptake of part-time work, remote schedules and reduced hours among working mothers has always been a key contributing factor to the gender pay gap. Yet demand to work flexibly from men increased by 30% during the pandemic, and research suggests that the number of men requesting to work remotely is now comparable to their female counterparts. 

Although widespread remote working hasn’t been the norm for long enough to observe progression and pay patterns among newly flexible workers, experts are hopeful that increased normalisation of flexible work could potentially reduce its negative impact on careers and even lessen gender pay gaps. 

“Flexible working was historically associated with women more than men, and particularly working mothers,” says Johnson-Jones. “By removing the need to have a ‘reason’ to request flexibility and giving everyone the freedom to choose how to work, we can make true progress on gender equality.”

Presenteeism remains a powerful force – and flexible workers may still miss out on opportunities to build strong ties with colleagues and managers (Credit: Getty Images)

Presenteeism remains a powerful force – and flexible workers may still miss out on opportunities to build strong ties with colleagues and managers (Credit: Getty Images)

The problem of presenteeism 

Yet, as employees trickle back to the office and more workplaces initiate hybrid working policies, some worry familiar problems of presenteeism might stifle progress. 

“There will always be a bit of a premium for being physically in the office,” says Alok Alström, founder of the Future of Work Institute, a think tank based in Sweden. Working remotely could prevent workers from developing a strong relationship with “the person who is controlling your salary and role, particularly if you haven’t met key decision-makers. It also means that you are less likely to be invited to social events, which are often where relationships are built within companies.” 

Enforced remote working offered up an idealised version of a more equitable workplace – after all, it’s difficult to penalise someone for spending less time at the office when everyone is working from their kitchen table. As yet, however, there’s little evidence to show that the level playing field wasn’t simply a temporary benefit of lockdown. As Alström argues, it’s possible human nature might win out, with office bonding mechanisms offering a natural advantage to those who choose to show up to the workplace in person. 

Experts also point out that, far from being a utopia for flexible workers, the post-pandemic office environment could heighten competition between at-home staff and those who show up to the workplace. 

“The democratisation of flexible work might make those who don’t go for this option stand out even more,” says Thomas Roulet, an associate professor in organisational theory at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School. “It’s perfectly intuitive to believe that the flexible work penalty will lessen as everybody gets access to flexible work, but it might simply mean that those who stay away from flexible working make an even stronger signal of commitment to their employers.”

The post-pandemic office environment could heighten competition between at-home staff and those who show up to the workplace

Presenteeism is a powerful force that’s been blamed for everything from the widespread burnout of office workers to the productivity lag in many economies. The idea of “showing up” is so deeply ingrained in working culture that Roulet believes some employees may continue to pursue it, even when less rigid work structures are an option, deepening the divide between flexible and non-flexible staff. And this wouldn’t just be a problem for people who choose to take advantage of newly adaptable workplace policies. 

“Hyperflexibility might become the norm, but there are implications for how people take advantage of these policies,” he says. For office-based workers, too, “it might actually generate more burnout, as some employees feel more responsible and engaged, and so might be less likely to take time off, for example, whilst others take full advantage of the flexibility options available to them.” 

Preparing for change 

The only way for workers to know if the penalty is mitigated for good – or perhaps even worse than ever, as Roulet fears – is for working patterns to stabilise in some way so employees and experts alike can collect data. 

Of course, work hasn’t yet settled – and with the rise of a new virus variant, it seems increasingly likely we’ll stay in flux for some time. It may be a while until we can see how the flexible work penalty plays out in a world that is newly – and seemingly – permanently accommodating to formerly unconventional work patters. 

But that’s not all bad. This holding pattern gives companies time to continue evaluating their policies and practices as well as examine their biases, as workers are pushing them to do. It creates some hope that we’ll soon find a fairer and more equitable way of working, whether workers are at office desks or kitchen tables.