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04 May 2020

How flexible working is often stereotyped and stigmatised

Daiki Kihara

DAIKI KIHARA: What research from the UK and Japan tells us about how it is perceived

Home working

This piece was written by Daiki Kihara, an MA Public Policy student at King's College London, as part of an internship with the Global Institute for Women's Leadership. 

“Work-style reform” has been a buzzword in Japan for around three years. The Japanese government implemented the Action Plan for the Realisation of Work Style Reform in 2017, which included a significant pledge to promote flexible working styles. For example, the plan said that the government would triple the number of companies that introduce teleworking (ie working remotely).

For many Japanese people, the UK is seen as an advanced country when it comes to flexible work arrangements (FWAs), which include the choice to work from home and when to schedule working hours. Indeed, government policy on this suggests a superior approach in the UK. All British employees, for instance, have the legal right to request flexible working, whereas in Japan, only parents or carers can require their employers to permit flexible working or to reduce their working hours. Moreover, research from one consultancy estimates that 47 per cent of all flexible workers work full-time in Britain.

According to a survey in Japan, around 34 per cent of employees can choose their workdays, approximately 25 per cent can decide their working hours and only around 15 per cent can determine where they work. Although it is problematic to compare these figures since they are not the same survey, British workers look to enjoy FWAs more than their Japanese counterparts.

Given this disparity between the offering in the UK and Japan, it seems reasonable for the Japanese government to commit to promoting FWAs. However, the experience of British workers also illustrates one cautionary point, namely “flexibility stigma” – the belief that those who are using FWAs do not contribute as much to companies. Work by Dr Heejung Chung shows almost one in five people in the UK who work flexibly report experiencing some negative career consequences, such as lower pay/salary or damage to career prospects, as a result.

Where does this stigma come from? One of the key factors is a stereotypical understanding of what the best working style is. Through interviews with employees in banking and accountancy organisations in the UK, one study revealed the existence of a disparity between the “good” male-style worker and the “bad” female-style worker. The authors point out that respondents tended to consider FWAs as a “bad” – and female – work style. This stereotype could, as the study shows, lead to backlash from colleagues against those who use FWAs.

It is noteworthy that the victims of the stereotype are not only women. Both of the studies about British workers mentioned above illustrate male workers could also suffer the stigma around flexible working to the same degree as female workers. In other words, those who are not “good” male-style workers may be unfairly regarded as uncommitted to companies regardless of their gender.

This stereotype regarding working style also exists in Japan. The research sponsored by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare shows fewer than 10 per cent of male employees have made use of a short working hour system to help with childcare. In comparison, around 40 per cent of female employees have taken advantage of it. 17.5 per cent of male employees who have not used the system answered that hostile attitudes from bosses or colleagues prevented them from using it. This result implies that quite a few people assume that FWAs are for female workers with childcare responsibility, and those who use FWAs would be less committed to their companies. Therefore, if the government promotes FWAs without tackling this stereotype, numerous employees may end up suffering from the flexibility stigma, similar to British workers.

There is evidence which shows that the stereotype towards flexible workers is unfair. The UK's work-life balance charity, Working Families, and Cranfield Management School conducted a two-year research project on the impact of flexible working practices on employee performance. Seven leading companies, such as Centrica or KPMG, participated. According to the project, the majority of flexible workers answered that it had a positive impact on their performance. More impressively, around 45 per cent of their managers reported a positive effect from both qualitative and quantitative viewpoints. A tiny minority of managers reported a negative impact.

These results are not necessarily an indication that FWAs are always beneficial, however. One interview with a manager illustrated that FWAs could sometimes discourage workers from tackling challenging tasks. Thus we can’t necessarily consider that FWAs are always the most desirable approach for everyone.

As a result, we need to consider which working styles are genuinely appropriate for the tasks employees carry out as well as their work-life balance. The project by Working Families and Cranfield Management School indicates that adopting FWAs led some employees to reflect on their roles in detail. They also analysed what were the essential parts of their tasks to make their work effective. This detailed analysis of jobs seems to be a critical factor which makes FWAs advantageous both for employees and employers.

In order to conduct the analysis, eliminating any kind of stereotype is crucial because they distort how FWAs are evaluated. Although the workplace looks very different in the UK and Japan, it could be said that the two countries face the same problem of stereotyping working styles. Perhaps policymakers and individuals in the UK and Japan can learn from each other in terms of tackling stereotypes and making FWAs more effective.