When Flexibility Fails

Flexibility seemed like the answer to so many of our problems when it was first introduced. These arrangements would allow us to do work on our own terms, juggle our work roles with our other roles in life and even avoid the dreariness of commuting! And these are all certainly the benefits that staff with flexible work arrangements report, amongst many others. It’s also where the world of work is headed (and fast), with the average office set to provide only 6 desks for every 10 workers by 20203. But have we jumped into flexible working a little too quickly? And can we do it better?

Don’t get me wrong – flexibility has opened up many opportunities for those of us who are unable to work under more conventional work arrangements (and in the past would have likely not worked at all). It’s also a valuable attraction and recruitment tool, with 52% of us reporting we would willingly accept a pay cut in return for greater flexibility3. But is it making life easier, or creating more stress? And, more importantly, how can we better support flexible working?

Flat out working flexibly

People who work flexibly usually adopt such an arrangement in order to juggle work with other commitments (including family, caring, study or travel commitments). Because we rarely get significant amounts of uninterruptible time to complete work, we tend to break our work into smaller pieces and squeeze it in wherever we can. This interrupts states of flow and productive time5. There is also an increased cognitive load associated with switching between different tasks and identities throughout the day. This burden of switching, coupled with the pressure to fill every part of the day, can lead to burnout and rob us of productive and creative time which are really important for engagement.

The other trade off for working flexibly is that you generally have to be contactable. When we’re working in the office, it’s often assumed that if we’re not at our desk we’re not available. However, staff working from home often feel pressure to answer the phone or respond quickly to emails, even when we are not working. The constant intrusion of work into other life domains can lead to stress and resentment.

The flexibility tax

People who work flexibly often report feeling that they need to compensate by working longer hours than they would if they were in the office, in order to challenge the perception that “working flexibly” means working less. When workload pressures are high, it’s also that little bit easier to do a few extra hours here and there under flexible work arrangements. As such, people who work flexibly can end up taking on more than those in the office which can, again, lead to burn out and other health consequences4.

Flexibility vs Face Time

Related to flexibility tax is the guilt that comes along with not having as much of a presence in the office or within a team. This guilt means that we may overcompensate by contributing to the pool of resources within our team, but be reluctant to draw from it. This can leave flexible workers with a deficit in terms of how much we get back from the team versus how much we put in4.

Flexible workers also report feelings of isolation1, having fewer opportunities to engage in the more informal aspects of office life that help develop relationships. The main problem with this is that it can mess with our sense of belonging. When we feel as if we belong within our workplace, we are much more supported, connected and protected from some of the challenges of modern workplaces7.

How might we protect flexible workers against the challenges of intrusion, interruption, and isolation?

Research on the benefits of flexibility remains quite mixed. Emerging research does, however, suggest some strategies to help organisations enable flexible working while minimising the negative impact:

Allow staff to switch off

Leaders and managers need to allow people who work flexibly to switch off and protect time that isn’t interrupted or intruded by others in the office. Going offline for periods of time is something that should be generally encouraged, but particularly for flexible workers who may not feel as entitled or able to do so.

Encouraging belonging

Structure team meetings and organisation-wide events to enable flexible workers to attend. For example, schedule meetings towards the middle of the day, rather than early or late in the day, alternate the days meetings are held on, and enable remote attendance by video or phone. This will help flexible staff to be more involved in relevant business discussions and decisions, and foster a sense of belonging. Given that many staff who work flexibly are from groups who are under-represented in the workforce (i.e. people with disabilities, caring commitments, parenting responsibilities) how you support your employees who work flexibly is an important part of your inclusion strategy.

Don’t forget about career development

Concern about the impact on career progression often pops up in the research as a key downside of working flexibly. Having a flexible organisational approach to career progression and ensuring that all staff are extended meaningful conversations about their career ambitions will help improve engagement and business outcomes such as retention and productivity.

Bottom line?

Flexibility can be incredibly beneficial for staff wellbeing and engagement when managed well. But it’s also important to acknowledge that flexibility can have downsides. So, don’t forget your flexible workers and the unique challenges they face. Just because they may be out of sight doesn’t mean they should be out of mind. For more on improving your flexible work practices see Voice Project’s Voice Bite on Flexibility.


4. Kelliher C, Anderson D. Doing more with less? Flexible working practices and the intensification of work. Human relations. 2010 Jan;63(1):83-106.
5. Ter Hoeven, C. L., van Zoonen, W., & Fonner, K. L. (2016). The practical paradox of technology: The influence of communication technology use on employee burnout and engagement. Communication monographs, 83(2), 239-263.
6. Wynn, A. T., & Rao, A. H. (2019). Failures of Flexibility: How Perceived Control Motivates the Individualization of Work–Life Conflict. ILR Review.