Earlier today I gave a quote to People Management magazine in response to an article about a drop off in remote work job advertisements. I said that I was concerned flexible working stigma would return with a vengeance. I didn’t realise how quickly I would be proved correct.
Flexible working is associated with a range of stigma that can cause serious negative consequences for flexible workers. There was plenty of research on this pre pandemic (check out the work of Professor Heejung Chung if academic papers are your thing). She found that 35% of all workers agreed with the statement that those who work flexibly create more work for others and 32% believed that those who worked flexibly had lower chances for promotion. Other research found that people who requested flexible working were judged more negatively than those who did not – and that this judgement was particularly harsh when it came to people who wanted to work from home compared to time flexibility.
Pre Covid working flexibly often gave rise to concerns – mostly unsubstantiated ones – that flexible workers are somehow less committed or motivated than their non-flexible counterparts and would be difficult to manage (for this read, might skive). Add to this the career death that is part time work – the most common form of flexible working – and the fact that working remotely has been found to lead to fewer career opportunities and reduced financial rewards….and we have a toxic mix of bias, stigma and stereotypes.
During the pandemic some US research predicted that homeworking would stick. They gave four reasons for this position, and I agreed with three of them. The fourth, with which i disagreed, was that the stigma of flexible working had reduced.
I disagree. I think it reduced temporarily while everyone was doing it, and while it was framed as a necessary sacrifice to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Now, the ‘go back to the office’ narrative is in full swing.
We have seen homeworking referred to as an aberration, dangerous to your career, and a risk to the fortunes of Pret. In the last few days working from home has been blamed for the HGV driver shortage (lazy civil servants working from home and not processing licences fast enough), referred to as ‘woke’ (don’t ask me) and then today the PM has apparently suggested that we should go back to the office or risk being gossiped about. And finally today, Twitter tells me that the Conservative Party Chairman has told people to ‘get off their Pelotons and back to their desks’.
Putting aside the fact that I believe Pelotons are entirely incompatible with taking part in a Zoom meeting, these flippant remarks lack any supporting evidence. In fact research from before and during the pandemic shows consistent benefits from working flexibly, including increased productivity. 84% of people have said that they are at least as productive at home, if not more so, than they are in the office.
But this does not fit the lazy shirker mentality. This does not fit the save the City landlords imperative. Homeworkers have just become one more group to blame for things going wrong that are nothing to do with them.
And yet these comments are heard by employees, by young people entering the workforce, by managers and leaders. They will shape opinions and behaviour.
We have the chance, with hybrid working, to tackle some of our big challenges about work. We have the potential to reshape and rethink. To break away from much that was problematic about the old models. Instead we run the risk of returning to old ways to exclude and marginalise people.
We need to stop shaming home and flexible workers. We need to challenge and call out every act of bias and stigma, every untruth and every piece of banter.
Because if we do not, the 9-5, the Monday to Friday (add your favourite type of commute) and the office is the future of work, as well as the past.