Over the last few years a deeper understanding of unconscious bias has become the latest instrument for employers tackling diversity challenges. For the most part this has involved an exploration of how unconscious (or subconscious or implicit) bias affects our decisions about other people at work. 

Warwick University defines unconscious bias as:

‘a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences’

After wading through almost fifty google listings this was the first definition I found that acknowledged our bias towards situations as well as people. An important distinction since I’m going to assert that unconscious bias is holding back the progress of flexible working in your business.

One dictionary definition of “flexible” is “adaptable, able to be changed to suit circumstances” and in this context, in a volatile world, it would seem appropriate to use the word to precede “working”. So why is it that in common parlance the term “flexible working” has lost its original meaning, becoming a synonym for “part-time working” and “work-life balance” (subtext, I want more balance, less work)?

Where managers are concerned, a raft of unconscious beliefs underpin most conversations about flexible working. For example:

·       Flexible working is for carers who need to work less hours.

·       People who want to work flexibly are less committed to their career/employer.

·       If one team member works flexibly others will have to “pick up the slack”.

·       We’ll never find someone to cover the other half of the job-share/one or two days per week that you’re not working.

·       I can’t trust my staff to work productively if I can’t see what they’re doing.

·       This job simply cannot be worked flexibly/is too senior to be worked on a flexible basis.

·       Our clients/customers won’t like it/will suffer.

And even where flexibility has been embraced, the biases continue, as the University of Washington School of Business recently discovered.

In more than twenty years of promoting flexible working it’s never ceased to amaze me that:

·       People who – in their personal lives – shop online, download their music from the cloud and regularly Skype friends and family members appear to be unwilling to encompass the same technologies to support flexibility at work.

·       Despite mounting evidence that flexible working arrangements form a powerful part of any employer’s inclusiveness strategies – and that there is a large and willing potential workforce ready to snap up flexible vacancies – flexibility remains a poor relation when it comes to HR initiatives.

The world of work is changing rapidly. Organisations are beginning to embrace the business benefits of next generation flexibility in the form of Smart or Agile working. The winners – both in terms of financial savings and higher employee engagement – will be the ones with pioneering strategies that encourage new thinking around working practices. Exploring the unconscious biases surrounding flexible working is a good place to start.