Large corporations are speaking with increasing recurrence about the importance of work-life balance in order for their professionals to perform their duties adequately. No surprise here, due to the benefits of balance policies on employees, on organizations and on society, as we explored in previous articles.
Work flexibility: a benefit network that favours all parties involved
For employees, having a true work-life balance is linked to better health, higher degree of satisfaction, as well as a greater productivity and commitment towards the organization they work for.
For organizations, providing workers with a true work life balance translates into direct positive impact on productivity and customer added value, as well as a lower rate of employees leaving the company and less stress and anxiety among them.
However, work-life balance is of crucial importance to society, not as a mere coordination tool between work and family responsibilities, but as a cardinal point which allows societies to organize themselves in a fairer, more humane way, and with implications regarding the quality of childhood, gender equity and planet’s sustainability.
With all this, and recently reinforced by the health crisis caused by COVID-19, it is not surprising that companies, especially large corporations, are making efforts to offer flexibility policies to their employees, and that, at the same time, employees are looking for companies that offer flexibility programs.
Why is the use of flexibility policies so limited?
In an interesting study, which used a fairly innovative methodology, the website sections of 96 companies that were among the 100 best companies to work for (Fortune 500) were reviewed, in order to understand how the need for balance among employees could be articulated within their organizations.
The article, which offers different narratives on the part of organizations, concludes that having flexible programs and policies does not necessarily mean that their corporate culture favours their use, a conclusion also reached by other academic studies.
But what is the reason behind such a limited use of flexibility policies among employees, even if benefits for organizations are proven? It is obvious that the current health crisis situation caused by COVID-19 is exceptional —as workers are forced to make use of such policies—, but it is interesting to delve into the future implications of the use of flexibility policies once a certain day-to-dayness returns.
Managers as barriers to flexibility
In this regard, it is essential to highlight the importance of managers’ perception or, in other words, the attributions that managers construct from the utilization of such policies on the part of their employees when these are not imposed —as it is currently happening— but required by their teams.
Recent empirical evidences, measuring whether the acceptance of such flexibility policies has a positive or a negative impact on the professional careers of users, are contradictory. Some studies have found that the use of flexibility policies is linked to positive consequences such as promotions or salary increases —career premiums—, while in other cases the opposite conclusion has been drawn: the use of flexibility policies is linked to a negative outcome, to a lower chance of being promoted and enjoying a salary increase —career penalties—(Glass, 2004).
A major study published in one of the most prestigious management journals sought to clarify what elements were causing these contradictory effects in the use of flexibility policies. In order to accomplish this, they decided to put the magnifying glass on managers and their perception of those employees who make use of such policies. Lisa Leslie’s team called these perceptions attributions.
Happy worker vs. uncommitted worker
According to the aforementioned study, there are two major narratives in the use of flexibility policies. The first is that of the “happy worker” —it assumes that a worker with better balance and better management of his or her family and work responsibilities will be happier, healthier and more productive eventually.
The second narrative is that of the “uncommitted worker”. It assumes that employees who use flexibility policies will tend to get less involved in corporate issues, since time, attention and energy are limited, and devoting resources to one domain means not devoting them to another.
Therefore, while the first narrative assumes that the worker will be more productive, the second narrative presumes precisely the opposite.
Leslie and her team decided to try to understand how managers perceived employees who requested to use one of the prerogatives within flexibility policies (e.g., flexi-time or teleworking). The researchers distinguished between two types of attributions on the part of managers:
1) productivity attribution: the manager perceives that the employee requests to use a prerogative in order to further contribute to the organization (e.g. making international calls outside working hours, or taking an MBA)
2) personal life attribution: the manager assumes that the employee will contribute less to the organization, as he or she is making use of a prerogative so as to take care of his or her children. Consequently, this can have contradictory effects on the employee, depending on the manager’s intended meaning or attribution.
The team´s conclusions were based on two studies. For the first one, they passed a questionnaire to 366 managers and their corresponding 482 employees. The first question was about the use of flexibility policies. Employees were asked if they had benefited from any prerogative, and managers were asked if their employees had used any of them. Equally, managers were encouraged to indicate, according to their perception, whether the use of employee policies was based on productivity or personal life obligations. In turn, they were asked to assess each employee’s level of commitment, and whether they would be individually eligible for promotion or not.
The importance of continuing to promote the notion of multi-faceted worker
The results were as follows: managers recognized greater commitment from employees who embraced flexibility policies, when these were explained by productivity reasons, than from employees who did not. Equally, managers perceived employees who used flexibility policies in order to provide care as less committed than employees who dismissed such policies.
Therefore, the same action —using the organization’s flexibility policies— had two opposite results: while the use of policies for productivity reasons reinforces the notion of the ideal worker, the use of the same flexibility policies to provide care violates it. Therefore, it’s not relevant whether said policies are embraced or not; what is important is whether embracing them enhances or deteriorates the image that the manager has of a certain professional in his or her team.
They conducted an even more clarifying second study. The experiment revolved around providing information about a candidate to 156 participants; they had to assess, as if they were managers, whether or not they recommended a promotion, and the degree of commitment of the individual in question. This fictitious person, named Sarah or Matthew, shared the same characteristics: about 30 years old, MBA, 10 years of experience and a performance rating of 4.4 out of 5.
But there was a subtlety. In some cases, at the end of the session, some participants were informed that Sarah or Matthew were using the organization’s flexibility policies to improve the company’s productivity; in others, at the end of the portfolio, they were informed that they were benefitting from flexibility policies to accommodate their children’s needs. We must remember that the productivity was the same in both cases, the only thing that varied was the reason why the candidate embraced the prerogative.
The results were again revealing. Participants who assessed the candidate when he or she used flexibility for productivity reasons, he or she was perceived as more committed and, consequently, more likely to be promoted. On the other hand, when it was indicated that the candidate with the same characteristics used the prerogative to provide care, they valued him as less committed, and with fewer chances of getting a promotion even though he or she was just as productive.
Therefore, both studies invite us to think not so much about the importance of the use of policies per se, but of the presumed reasons to embrace them. Leslie’s studies confirm that when employees benefit from these policies in order to “care”, it has a negative impact on their career path still, even if actual productivity is not affected.
That’s why at least three big steps are necessary:
1) keep drawing, rethinking the new ideal worker; not a one-dimensional but a multi-dimensional worker who develops useful skills in every domain
2) working with managers to understand the importance of their perceptions and attributions in the future of their team members’ careers
3) rethinking the idea of care provision, not as something that goes against the productivity of organizations, but as something that is really an intrinsic part of work and life itself.
Kirby, E., & Krone, K. (2002). “The policy exists but you can’t really use it”: Communication and the structuration of work-family policies. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30(1), 50–77. https://doi.org/10.1080/00909880216577
Weeden, K. A. (2005). Is there a flexiglass ceiling? Flexible work arrangements and wages in the United States. Social Science Research, 34(2), 454–482. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2004.04.006
Glass, J. L. (2004). Blessing or curse? Work-family policies and mother’s wage growth over time. Work and Occupations, 31(3), 367–394.
Leslie, L. M., Park, T., & Mehng, S. A. (2012). Flexible work practices: A source of career premiums or penalties? Academy of Management Journal, 56(6), 1407–1429.