Is Your Company Offering False or Real Flexibility?

4 min read • Jun 19, 2021 • Derek Miller

A great workplace doesn’t need beanbag chairs or sleep pods. It doesn’t need ping-pong tables or a beer fridge. It needs a healthy culture where employees are able to grow—professionally and personally.

Too often, companies chase the startup dream of a “work hard, play hard” mentality: employees aren’t just coworkers but also friends. While there isn’t anything wrong with this in theory, the reality is often one that blends interpersonal lines and leaves employees confused, overworked, and burnt out.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, HR specialists are noticing a new trend: false flexibility. 

In this case, companies promise flexible hours and remote work only to create a more stressful environment than their workers had previously. Let’s look at this phenomenon—and how you can avoid it in your organization. 

Flexible Work Easily Leads to Overwork

Even before the pandemic, hiring professionals were concerned about the rise of flex hours. While there’s nothing wrong with letting workers set their own schedules (a particularly great way for parents to care for children), studies have found that employees tend to overwork themselves when their hours aren’t fixed. 

According to a study of 1,500 respondents conducted by Morgan McKinley, 91% of UK professionals work beyond their contracted hours. The same percentage of respondents (90%) don’t receive compensation for working overtime. When asked about the frequency of overwork, a third (31%) always work beyond their expected hours, and 26% mostly work longer than they should.

This survey was conducted in 2019, just before the start of the pandemic. Since employees switched to remote work, these numbers have remained steady, if not increased. When workers physically can’t leave the office because the office is the kitchen table, more people will keep working into the night or on the weekends when they otherwise would not.

A December 2020 survey by Robert Half found that 70% of professionals who transitioned to remote work now work weekends, while 45% say they work longer hours than they did before. 

This begs the question: why are employees working more—and what can employers do about it? 

Why Flex Time and the Remote Office Leads to Overworking

While some employees are inclined to clock in when they don’t need to, most people often work long hours because of guilt and insecurity. For example, consider various surveys that show that 66% to 82% of workers skip their full lunch breaks. 

There are multiple reasons for this, but the core reason is fear. Employees worry that they’ll look bad if they take the full hour—like they are lazy or not dedicated to the company. This is particularly true when coworkers and bosses also skip lunch, which creates a culture that suggests missing breaks is a highly valued signal of dedication. 

The same concept can be applied to companies where employees work late and on weekends. If your manager emails you during your downtime and your coworkers respond, you’re more likely to log in as well to look like a good worker. 

The pandemic exacerbated this cycle of overtime work because everyone was stuck at home. After all, what else are you going to do while you’re lying around the house all day? The ease of access and lack of other priorities during the lockdown made it hard not to overwork.

It’s Up to Management to Make Flex Time a Valuable Perk

The same survey that reviewed employee lunch breaks found that workers were more likely to take their full lunch hours when their managers also took lunch—or encouraged their team members to take lunch as well. 

Company culture is a top-down creation. As a manager or CEO, you can’t issue your core values and then excuse yourself from following them. 

There’s nothing wrong with offering flexible work hours and remote work options within your organization. However, it’s up to you as a leader to make sure these perks are helping employees instead of creating overwork. Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to achieve this.

  1. Enforce time tracking. Ask all of your employees—even salaried employees—to clock in and out each day. Not only will this prevent employees from underworking, but it will also limit burnout for salaried employees who want to overwork themselves. 
  2. Give your employees the right to disconnect. You can follow in the footsteps of other countries and create a rule for your employees to turn off their devices at the end of the day. This way, they can clock out without repercussions.
  3. State—and restate—your remote work policies. Don’t limit your discussions about flexible work to candidate job interviews and employee onboarding. Make talks about core values a significant part of working for your organization. 

You can follow these clear action items to ensure that your remote workers practice a healthy work-life balance. 

Review Your Internal Workflows    

If your employees keep overworking themselves, take a deeper dive to understand why. Are their workloads packed to the point where they need to work weekends? Are your deadlines so tight that your team members feel pressured to stay late? You may need to adjust how your team members work so they feel comfortable taking time off when the workday ends.

Derek Miller

Derek Miller is the CMO of Smack Apparel, the content guru at Great.com, and a marketing consultant for small businesses. He specializes in entrepreneurship, small business, and digital marketing, and his work has been featured in sites like Entrepreneur, GoDaddy, Score.org, and StartupCamp.