Spring 2013

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If you’re older than, say, 45, you probably remember when coats and ties were standard office wear, when fax machines were state-of-the-art, and when the idea of “working from home” was a laughable fantasy.

But times change: Business casual is in, faxes are almost gone, and flexible work practices (FWPs) are increasingly common. While employees tend to love them, FWPs can carry a stigma in some circles. Assistant Professors Lisa Leslie and Colleen Flaherty Manchester explored that topic in research that focuses on how FWPs affect an employee’s career prospects. Their process included an online survey of 482 Fortune 500 firm employees, along with lab studies that involved 156 participants.

Manchester QuoteOne finding: Employees and managers tend to view FWPs from different perspectives. “Employees are more likely to report that they use FWPs for both work-life balance and productivity reasons,” says Manchester. “They view the two as synergistic.”

Not so for managers. “We found that when managers attribute employee use of FWPs for productivity reasons, they assume that the employees are more committed and thus reward them with higher levels of career success—regardless of the employees’ actual level of commitment,” says Leslie.

Leslie Quote“That finding confirmed one of our hypotheses,” Leslie adds. Alternatively, they proposed that “if a manager thought an employee was using an FWP purely for work-life balance reasons, it would lead to the assumption that the employee has personal life issues that detract from his or her commitment to work—and that the employee is less committed than someone who doesn’t use an FWP.” This prediction bore out in the laboratory study, but was not supported in the field study.

In other words, much is riding on a manager’s perception of why the employee wants an FWP. Says Manchester: “If you’re an employee, it’s key to make the productivity case when you request an FWP.”

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