The complete guide to flexible work that doesn’t kill your career

This is a lot better than working from bed on a laptop.
This is a lot better than working from bed on a laptop.
Image: AP/Stanley Leary
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Many people work happily and effectively from home. Research suggests that these “flexible” workers can be more productive, and that they have higher levels of well being, and much less depleting conflict between work and family.

But these types of schedules come rarely and at a cost: There’s significant evidence that there are career disadvantages, including a “flexibility stigma” on advancement. And there’s a significant gap  (paywall) between the promise of flexibility and the reality.

It takes extra effort, planning, and thoughtfulness to overcome these career penalties. Looking at research, successful people and companies, we’ve come up with a few tips for those trying to make “flexible” work.

Pitch it as productive, not personal

Managers tend to think that using a flexible schedule to be more productive is good—a sign of commitment to the organization—according to a study (pdf) from Lisa Leslie at the University of Minnesota. But when employees seek such schedules to accommodate aspects of their personal life, they see it as a sign of low commitment and dedication.

Those assumptions shape managers’ perceptions of their employees’ commitment, and have a significant effect on career success, affecting pay raises, job evaluations, and promotions. And these assessments of whether the flexibility is about productivity or personal life are often made without regard to an employee’s performance, attitude, or actual behavior.

There’s a pervasive “ideal worker bias” toward long hours, a presence in the office, and undervaluing family life, which has historically benefitted men. That means mothers that take flex time lose out on pay and promotions, and that men who do so are sometimes seen as less masculine and see careers suffer as well.

So when approaching a manager to request flexible work, emphasize the productivity motivation, that flexible workers face fewer interruptions, avoid commuting, and better adapt their hours to particular business needs and their own peaks of productivity.

Cali Ressler, a former Best Buy HR executive who helped create the company’s pioneering flexible work program with Jody Thompson (which has since ended), said managers want to hear about outcomes.

“Stop justifying how you’re approaching your work and start talking about the results you’re achieving,” Ressler told Quartz. ”Talk until you’re blue in the face about that. And if you’re hit up with nagging questions like ‘Working a short day again?’ or ‘Leaving early? Wish I had your job,’ respond with ‘Is there something I can help you with?'”

Don’t be an outlier

The best time to move to a flexible schedule isn’t when you’re completely on your own in a company where it’s not the norm. Going it alone highlights the comparative lack of face time, and puts all of the onus on the individual rather than the organization to overcome biases against flexible workers.

And negotiating your flex time informally with a sympathetic manager makes you overly dependent on that one manager. It’s an arrangement, not a guarantee that will definitely carry over to a new supervisor.

A recent study (pdf) found workers felt happier and more effective after increasing flexible work options. Supervisors were more supportive of work life balance, and there was less family conflict. But this was in an office where managers were specifically trained to understand the benefits and effectively manage flexible workers, as well as cautioned away from negative biases.

If you’re not at a company with an active community of flexible workers, it’s better to push for reform as a group or wait for a change in policy, rather than go it alone.

The University of Minnesota’s Erin Kelly, one of the most prominent researchers on flexible work environments, advocates for work redesign, where an organization actively changes its culture to promote flexible work lives as a much more workable alternative to one-off arrangements.

When flexible work is viewed as a “perk” or “arrangement,” it sets up traditional work as the standard, which helps create career penalties. But when it’s part of a larger organizational move, and managers are trained to realize that family time doesn’t actually come at the expense of work, it becomes a norm.

Insist on real goals

When goals are vague, managers have a hard time measuring results. In that case, they’re more likely to default to superficial judgement. Ressler, who now runs a consultancy with Thompson focused on advocating for more flexible work environments, says outcome-based goals are essential for those on a flexible schedule.

“Too often, fluffy goals exist like ‘provide good customer service,’ without measures, like ‘what constitutes good customer service?’—which leaves the door wide open for managers to judge employees using time and physical presence,” Ressler says. “The tighter the goal and the more objective the measure, the better. Don’t leave room for subjective analysis.”

In the absence of clear goals, subjective analysis arises, she says. Managers might argue that if you came into the office more or earlier, you’d be doing a better job, for example. The more airtight the goals and metrics are, the more performance is valued—instead of when and where you’re working.

Be conscious of manager bias

In an ideal world, work would speak for itself. But managers look at a lot more when gauging performance, rating those that come in earlier in the morning as better and more conscientious workers, regardless of whether late risers outperform them and stay much later in the evening.

Remote and flexible workers can overcome that by starting their day earlier, by being active online or having work done when a manager gets into the office.

An early physical presence in the office and lots of “passive face time” have nothing to do with productivity, and lead to wasted hours just staring at a computer or office pageantry (paywall) such as leaving an open takeout container on their desk in an attempt to hide a trip to the gym.

But remote workers have to be extra conscious of the cosmetic—of not just being diligent but appearing so—when working for someone less accustomed to managing flexible workers. That can mean starting work early in the morning, checking in frequently, and responding extra rapidly to emails, phone calls, and instant messages.

It means documenting work and when it’s done, and avoiding the kind of long silences that lead managers to assume you’re chatting with friends or playing internet games, assumptions they’re less likely to make when they see someone in a cubicle (though those same activities might well be happening there).

Look for a company that truly supports flexible work

There’s a broad spectrum, from big companies with well-established policies and a culture built around flexible work, to hybrid companies with large numbers of remote workers, to fully distributed companies that hire most or many of their employees away from a an office.

Such companies are increasingly easy to find through job boards and listing services. We Work Remotely is a job board from the founders of Basecamp, who wrote a book about the rise of the remote workplace. Flexjobs is a large, flexible-work-focused job board which publishes an annual list of the best companies for flexible careers. Others focus more narrowly, on working mothers, for example. Ressler and Thompson plan to create a job board of their own.

Sometimes claims about a company’s flexible work are more a public relations effort than a reality. It is worth taking promises with a grain of salt, and ideally speaking to employees who take part in the flexible program before signing on.

Be well-equipped

With big gender and career issues at stake, technology can seem like a secondary concern. But it’s surprisingly important. Spotty internet can mean interruptions, and managers being unable reach you at critical times, both problems that are likely to lead to worse reviews and a negative perception of remote work.

Bad video conferencing makes it more likely that a remote worker will be left out of a meeting, and it’s hard for a disembodied voice to truly participate.

The need to adapt goes beyond hardware. The most successful remote teams have open communication and logs of work, so everyone is operating from the same information. That way, remote workers don’t have to depend on someone to pass along what’s going on in the office, filtering out whatever they’ve forgotten, don’t have time to relay, or don’t want to include.

Your remote workspace matters too. People don’t tend to be as productive working on a laptop from bed as they are in a setup that’s designed for work.