Is There Still a Stigma about Flexible Work Hours and Arrangements?

Flexible WorkingA third of all Australian employees are self-styled “flexi-time” workers, and that makes up 4.1 million individuals, and counting. Freelancing and working flexible hours in Australia is becoming a more popular trend, and it’s changing how people approach and even define work.

There are many benefits of flexible working hours and freelancing, including the ability to set your own schedule and give more time to your family and social life. And, with online and remote communications becoming more and more reliable, effective, and efficient, flexible work arrangements should be even easier to adopt and implement in the coming years.

That being said—and despite its perceived advantages and advances in technology that make it possible—a stigma regarding working flexible hours, part-time telecommuting, and working remotely still exists. And, although it affects both genders, women are seemingly highlighted more in this regard due to societal expectations regarding the need to take care of a family including aging parents, household and bear children.

The Stigma—What is it and What’s Behind it?

The greatest argument for flexible working hours is that it enables a greater level of work-life balance or as I prefer to call it, work-life blending. The idea is to provide a workplace setup and working schedule that enables an employee to do what he or she needs to accomplish for work while also being able to have more time to spend with family, friends and for themselves. It puts greater emphasis on the overall satisfaction of employees because, a happy employee is a more productive employee.

However, the stigma that comes along with flexible working hours cuts to the heart of trust in the workplace on the one hand and the way we “measure” and standardise workers at every level, on the other, especially as they move towards positions of management and leadership.

For women, the stigma shows up in a number of ways in the corporate workplace and business environment such as:

  • Women are routinely denied flexible work arrangements because their “motives” are seen to be related to family care even if the reason for their request has absolutely nothing to do with their personal lives.
  • Women experience a “women’s work penalty” where, even if they’re working in a female-owned business or female-dominated niche, there’s likely to be a significant reduction in access to schedule control
  • Women who request a flexible work schedule to advance their careers are still likely to be denied because it’s assumed they’ll leave their jobs in the future (for family planning and care).

The stigma for men is that their male peers question their commitment to their career if they choose flexible working arrangements as well as requesting parental leave.

A significant barrier to normalising and accepting flexible hours as a standard is the fact that many companies and businesses have a set and very strict policy on working schedules that cannot be altered, especially on a per individual employee basis. In this setting, requesting for flexible hours might be discouraged and frowned upon, further implying that there’s something wrong with it and perpetuating the stigma.

According to a study conducted by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, flexible working hours is still viewed not as a standard but more of an exception to the rule in many Australian companies.

Adding to that, less than 50% of organisations have a workplace flexibility policy in place. This lack of formal policy communicates where a company’s priority and preference lie.

And when women do try to access flexible working arrangements, according to Joan C. Williams, Director at the Centre for Work-Life Law, there are companies having flexible work policies on paper, though it’s known to their employees that they’ll be informally penalised if they use them.

Overturning Conventional Wisdom 

To begin changing this perception, trust and leadership should be taken into consideration. Firstly, the key to better and more willing adoption of flexible working arrangements is trust. There is a sense that those who seek flexible working arrangements are more likely to be distracted, splitting their attention and, thus, seemingly becoming less committed to their tasks.

This tells us that there is a distinct perception at play: working in the comfort of one’s own home or schedule, employees are not actually being as productive as they might be while physically in the office. In my experience the opposite is true.

Secondly, it will take individuals in positions of leadership (who themselves might require flexible working hours) to encourage acceptance. If those in the higher positions become more open to the idea of flexible working arrangements, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to influence those below them as well, creating a trickle-down effect.

There’s also the idea of workplace culture. There needs to be a culture in place in an organisation that not just accepts but also enables flexible working arrangements. As David Thodey, former CEO of Australian mobile phone company Telstra, says, “We have the enabling technology, now we need the enabling culture…You need a performance-based culture, where flexibility is just built-in.”

Moving Forward on Flexible Work Arrangements

Contrary to more entrenched beliefs in workplace culture, making the option to go for flexible working hours available is a great way to attract new talent and could also lead to more success in the long-term.

  • Employees who seek flexible working hours and arrangements are actually more productive and happier than those who remain confined to conventional working schedules. Results can also include lowered costs, decreased staff turnover, and reduced absences.
  • Companies can also strengthen their credibility by showing clients that they are ready to respond and are available “24/7,” thanks to flexible working arrangements that can make employees more readily accessible.
  • Flexible working schedules can also enhance an organisation’s ability to be more innovative, which can help them better prepare for future changes and trends.

For flexible working arrangements to be widely accepted, more organisations need to be encouraged to adopt it, and show good results for doing so. The good news is, more and more companies and people in top management positions are embracing this idea.

Take Envato, for example. The digital creative design marketplace tapped into and benefitted from granting internal employees flexible working arrangements. Their “universal workplace flexibility program” promises their Australian-based employees and global contractors the option to work from anywhere, anytime. What’s notable is that this is a stated policy and program being deliberately rolled out and encouraged across the whole company.

And their motivations for doing so? “The globalisation of work is coming, and it’s transformative. We want to stay competitive, attract the best, and get ahead of that,” says Envato HR Director James Law.

So, in summary, granting flexible working arrangements is not just for the benefit of the employees. Implemented correctly, it will result in more than just happy employees, it will also lead to increased productivity and flexibility, allowing a company to be more competitive in the global stage and possibly even more prepared for the future.

For women who want more insights, advice, and guidance when it comes to professional development, it always helps to join a business network you can trust. At Behind Closed Doors, we help women, help other women, improve and be closer to success in their careers or businesses. We offer peer mentoring, networking, professional development, support and other tools, events, and resources to help you in your career. Contact us today to learn how we can help you be more successful than you think is possible.


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