Bosses should reframe flexible work as ‘agile working’


Even the most forward-thinking workplaces can leave women feeling unempowered to ask for what they need. 

In the third annual edition of its Women @ Work report, released Wednesday, Deloitte surveyed 5,000 working women across 10 countries about the critical aspects of their experiences in the workplace. It found that 97% of respondents feared that simply asking for a more flexible work schedule would hurt their chances for a promotion—up from 94% last year. Plus, 95% said they didn’t believe their bosses would adjust their day-to-day workloads if they asked for flexible hours, compared to 90% last year.

Although these are small percentage increases, it’s clear the picture has worsened some. The data comes as no surprise to Emma Codd, Deloitte’s Global Inclusion Leader, who co-authored the study.

Codd tells Fortune that while she was a talent lead at Deloitte U.K., the business struggled with retaining women. “We had steep attrition,” she recalls. “We dug into why, and there were two reasons: work-life balance and culture.” 

This was a decade ago, but the issue has only become more vital since the pandemic, which decimated the share of women in the workforce. The remote work boom also threw a wrench into work-life balance, as many workers came to feel they were “living at work” rather than working from home. And, depending on who you ask, logging on from home “detonated” workers’ chances for connection. 

Flexibility and Poor work-life balance, along with flexibility, is still the top reason why women are left their job in the past year, the new Women @ Work report finds—which they felt a thoughtful hybrid set-up could fix. Two-thirds of women in roles that allow flexible work plan to stay at their company for more than three years, compared to 19% of women who have no flexibility. 

“You can’t argue with that,” Codd says. For those with pro-office bosses who are digging their heels in, some rebranding could go a long way.

Reinvent flexiblility as “agile working”

Back when Codd worked in talent pre-pandemic, Deloitte had the requisite policies meant to ensure equal access and flexibility—the “stuff you’d expect” it to have—but Codd says workers nonetheless felt intimidated by asking for exceptions. 

“They feared they’d be judged and put in a back-office role, or a role where they wouldn’t get higher, and people would think they weren’t serious about their career,” she says.

The fix, she says, which can apply in today’s remote work world: Get rid of the stigma. Her team renamed the concept to “agile working,” and she personally banned the word flexible. “Everytime I mentioned the word flexible, people thought it [stood for] women being difficult,” she says. “That’s so wrong, so I said no, we’re going to change the name.”

Codd found people in the organization who were already “agile working” and showcased them to decision-makers. She says they got rid of the stigma within a few years. “The way to remove a stigma is to talk about it, reframe it, show the impact, and establish clear principles about what we will do and who we will be.”

But even when women have the courage to ask for flexible work arrangements, more trouble comes along. Nearly 40% of women with hybrid arrangements say they’re excluded from meetings, decisions, and informal interactions. This year’s cohort also said they struggle with predictability and flexibility in their working patterns, and, overwhelmingly, believe their bosses expect them to go into the office, despite messaging to the contrary.

“I remember saying a year-and-a-half ago, [hybrid work] is ours to mess up,” Codd says. “We’ve been trying for years to say flexibility is a good thing, but you need predictability and inclusivity to make it work.”

Workers also must have confidence that flexible work arrangement decisions won’t be marred by proximity bias, or a hush-hush culture around mental health. Just 25% of women said they feel comfortable discussing mental health at work, down from last year’s 43%. 

“The reality is, everyone wants flexible work and agility, everyone wants hybrid, but I think equally, people like maintaining boundaries between home and life,” Codd says. “Most mental health challenges have a personal reason and a work reason.” It’s incumbent upon bosses to be clear and thoughtful with flexible work arrangements. Or, in Codd’s words, to “alleviate the work reason.” 

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