“I’m not comfortable imagining what my colleagues are thinking when I am at another meeting at my daughter’s school”
(Oriol, 36, Purchasing manager, 3 children)
“We have flexibility policies available to us. They’re new, they were implemented a couple of months ago. There have always been things written on paper, but now we have received an email stating that we have to take care of the work-life balance within the company. It was very neutral, addressed to everyone. But the truth is that not everyone applies it, nor do they believe it “
(Gabriel, 38, Marketing manager, 2 children)
“Companies have ‘official’ policies and ‘real’ policies”
(Bernat, 35, consultant, 1 child)
Among the barriers hindering work-life balance, some are visible and relatively easy to reverse, such as the lack of flexibility policies. With a certain amount of willingness and coordination, new flexibility policies can be offered relatively quickly in order to improve employees’ personal and professional responsibilities. Policies need to be well articulated, necessary resources need to be considered, who can benefit from them needs to be defined, and all this needs to be conveyed. For example, if you want to offer flexible working hours, you must think about a flexible entry and exit schedule, whether you are going to monitor time or not, which part of the staff can make use of such measures, and eventually communicate it in the most efficient way possible.
However, there are much more subtle, invisible and difficult barriers to overcome. And one of these barriers is the lack of legitimacy. Suchman defines legitimacy in organizations as a widespread perception that a person’s actions are desired and appropriate in a particular organization’s system of values, beliefs, and norms. Therefore, if legitimacy exists, there is also a lack of legitimacy that would be just the opposite, that is, a widespread perception that a person’s actions are not desired and appropriate in the value system, beliefs, and norms of a particular organization.
Flexibility policies: a real vision
The first two quotes from the beginning of the text, corresponding to a study on the perceived barriers to reconciliation, invite us to see clearly this possible lack of legitimacy in the use of flexibility through the voices of two employees. In the case of Oriol, we observe that he does not feel comfortable attending school meetings during working hours even though he has the possibility to do so. The fact that flexibility policies exist does not prevent the rest of the colleagues from perceiving it as something inappropriate to make use of, even though they are legitimate. It is a really interesting topic: how can you perceive as inappropriate an action that the company promotes?
Gabriel’s case also reinforces the argument of lack of legitimacy. He reports that his company offers new policies of flexibility, but “neither everyone applies it nor believes it”. In other words, even with the efforts on the part of many organisations to offer more labour flexibility policies than ever before, these may be underused because of lack of legitimacy.
Employees smell, feel, sense, whether the use of flexibility policies is welcome or not. Or what’s even more complex, whether their use is appropriate for some employees but not for others. It could be summed up by quoting Bernat, who reveals that companies often have two sides, the official and the real, and therefore official policies and real policies.
While this may be true, there are also many organizations that are making a genuine effort to provide the flexibility that 21st century employees deserve. Be that as it may, there are many reasons for the lack of legitimacy. Among them are the inertia of the past and the organisational culture, the perceptions of managers regarding work-life balance (and their own regarding the image they project as role models or not), added to the perceptions of co-workers (relevant actors who are often forgotten), as well as the national and cultural context in which the organisation is located. These issues will be addressed in future articles.
What about labour flexibility, then?
Solving the lack of legitimacy is no easy task. In fact, solving the lack of legitimacy is solving the problem completely. It means moving from a paradigm where the use of flexibility is inappropriate to a paradigm where the use of flexibility is welcome and desired. There is no magic recipe for reducing the lack of legitimacy from one day to the next, but there are interesting steps that we hope will help:
- Be aware that offering policies of flexibility is not enough.
- Communicate honestly about new flexibility policies.
- Invite management to be a role model.
- Open discussion groups.
- Demonstrate the successful use of flexibility (with data!).
- Persuade its use (from passive to active support)
- Congratulate the users of flexibility policies.
- Popularize the new paradigm.
- Standardize the new paradigm.
- Suchman, M. C. (1995). Managing legitimacy: Strategic and institutional approaches. Academy of management review, 20(3), 571-610.
- Bitektine, A., & Haack, P. (2015). The “macro” and the “micro” of legitimacy: Toward a multilevel theory of the legitimacy process. Academy of Management Review, 40(1), 49-75.