Flexible … and Judgmental?

How to Avoid Unintended Consequences in Your New Flexible Work Arrangement

Spring is here! (For Chicago readers, spring is a season, following winter, where it stops snowing, plants grow, and it’s not yet unbearably hot). Save for a couple hiccups along the way, vaccinations are increasing at a steady clip. As the last REB post mentioned, some employers are eager to see a return to in-office work. Of course, some employees are excited to return, too.

The EEOC has given the green light for employers to ask for proof of vaccination (training tip: be careful how you do so!), so one can envision how this can safely work. But, how should it work? For employers looking for creative ways to entice employees back to the office without eliminating the life they adjusted to in 2020, flexibility is key. Can it also be problematic?

The “Dress For Your Day” Paradox

If you commute to work via public transportation, you notice that at least half the car is dressed in jeans, flowy skirts, even (gasp) open toed shoes. Another large portion of the crowd is dressed as if they are going to meet their in-laws for the first time – not too fancy, but pressed and buttoned. A tiny sliver don a full-blown suit. Maybe most of the suit wearers drive to work; or maybe not. The fact is, as we look around, the dress code in office life changed over the years. Just ask the pantyhose industry. Many companies have a “business casual” approach, some offer Friday as the day for denim, and others do away with these rules all together in favor of a flexible policy known as “dress for your day!”

When thinking about how to approach the return, the flexible dress for your day model sounds promising. However, it also serves as a cautionary tale. Flexibility does not always foster inclusivity. According to Professor Richard Thompson Ford, author of Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, “casual workplace dress codes are increasingly common. But although they allow more personal freedom, they don’t really eliminate the judgment that can attach to clothing. Instead, they require us to figure out for ourselves what is acceptable for a given professional setting or occasion. In this sense, casual dress codes can be more demanding than strict rules: they force us to reveal our savoir faire, cultural background and individual sense of self. They are also especially tricky for women, who have more options in their fashion choices, but are also subject to more scrutiny. The traditional business suit can look like a nice, safe choice by comparison.” (The same irony is often found in “unlimited PTO” policies, which can result in a bizarre Who Worked the Most? competition, evidenced by overworked employees and cancelled vacation plans).

How do we avoid a flexible work environment becoming a source of stress? While I recommend employees have choice in 2021 when it comes to their work arrangement, available choices offered by the company should be acceptable choices according to the company. As employers contemplate how to welcome back employees, they must not inadvertently create a hierarchy based on who made the “right” or “wrong” choices. This will create an unpleasant work environment – or worse. Therefore, before you announce your new policy, educate your leadership, managers, and hiring professionals. Make your commitment to your policy well known. Talk about the risk of how employees’ scheduling choices could be perceived differently depending on their gender, marital or parental status, or age. Train your team to avoid acting on these (often-unconscious) biases.

Each employee has unique needs and demands. Their calendars, like clothing, will vary. By designing a truly flexible work schedule, employers can attract and retain good people who may no longer wear sweatpants, but still want to work from home from time to time.