How Flexible Hours Can Harm Employees As Much As It Helps Them

The "morning bias" may cause supervisors to look down on workers with later start times.

President Obama, nice boss that he is, wants you to stroll into work whenever you please.

All right, that's not entirely true. But at the White House Summit on Working Families this week, Obama did encourage employers to provide more flexibility—especially when it comes to family leave and childcare. As a first step toward that goal, the president outlined a policy for federal employees to request flexible work arrangements "without fear of retaliation."

It's hard to imagine any workers anywhere opposing that idea. Employees love workplace flexibility, and employers should, too, since it's linked with increased productivity and higher job satisfaction. But what if the worker "retaliation" that Obama intends to outlaw occurs unintentionally? Some new behavioral evidence suggests that some bosses will harbor biases against employees with flexible work schedules without even realizing it.

Take the issue of starting and quitting times. Flexibility here is a great perk—especially for households with two working parents—but U.S. employers don't do a great job granting it. While 81% of organizations allow some employees to periodically have flexible start and stop times, only 27% allow most or all employees to do so. And large organizations (more than 1,000 workers) tend to grant less flexible hours than small ones.

Via "Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility," White House Council of Economic Advisors (June 2014)
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So the type of improved flexibility proposed by Obama might be a great benefit. The problem is that changing the rules doesn't change employer perceptions, and employees who arrive late to work tend to have a bad reputation—even if they perform just as well in their job. In a new study set for publication in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers at the University of Washington have labeled this negative stereotype the "morning bias."

"We suggest that supervisors exhibit a pervasive morning bias and stereotype employees with late start times as less conscientious than employees with early start times," they write. "These perceptions in turn lead to lower performance ratings for employees with late start times."

In one experiment, the researchers asked test participants to assume the role of a manager at a company giving an employee a performance evaluation. Some participants read descriptive profiles of an employee who gets to work at 7 a.m. and leaves at 3 p.m. Others read about a worker who keeps hours from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Both workers put in 8 hours, and the two employees also had identical records on all other objective performance measures.

These profiles simulated a flexible office environment, with employees arriving early or late as they see fit, but the evaluations suggested it wasn't an equal one. Test participants in the late-start group rated their workers as significantly less conscientious than participants in the early-start group—despite the other similarities. That perception also influenced job performance ratings assigned to each of the fictional employees.

So in the eyes of a boss, a late-arriving worker may be no different from a bad worker. Fake managers weren't the only ones to feel this way. In a separate analysis, conducted on real supervisor-employee pairs, the researchers found the same thing. All else being equal, supervisors gave employees with late start times lower performance ratings, as well as lower "conscientiousness" ratings, than workers who arrived early.

In other words, taking advantage of a flexible schedule can put employees at a disadvantage come evaluation time. The results seem like bad news for the prospect of workplace flexibility "without fear of retaliation." But there was one important catch in both tests. When supervisors were late arrivers themselves (or, in the case of fake supervisors, when participants simply considered themselves evening people), the "morning bias" disappeared.

Via "Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility," White House Council of Economic Advisors (June 2014)
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That nuance should provide workers some hope. Employees can't exactly pick their jobs based on whether their boss is a morning or night person, but simply making supervisors aware of these biases could be enough to mitigate any impact on worker evaluations. Best Buy tested out this technique a few years ago, telling one corporate headquarters to embrace flexible hours so long as the work got done, and found lower turnover as a result.

Then again, the company cancelled its flexible program in 2013.

Encouraging such programs is precisely the point of Obama's new workplace agenda. There's a great deal of employee well-being at stake, and perhaps even some company productivity. But the evidence suggests that for the initiative to succeed it will have to do more than just promote the flexible office outcomes we expect. It will have to account for the ones we don't.

[Image: Flickr user E. I. Sanchez]

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8 Comments

  • Gail Strickland

    Personally, I do not believe the hour of arrival or departure has anything to do with productivity. I have witnessed early arrivers be non-productive as well as late arrivers accomplishing more. The bias is truly unsubstantiated and upper management should be trained to recognize true commitment and production regardless of early or late arrivals/departures. In my opinion, the new age of technology will eventually eliminate the need of "traditional" work place environment in operations and administrations. The footprint of traditional office space is already being reduced by many large corporate firms.
    Welcome to the new age.....click on the screen, production and meetings occur and you may only see your resource once or twice a year in person. Commitment and production comes from within the resource, not a time clock.

  • Jacob Chandy Varghese

    Very Nice article with very pragmatic and balanced view. So true how our psychological biases towards the proverbial early bird reflects at work also.

  • allenspicer

    I would go further to assume an endogenous variable here. It is our nature, in a world of imperfect information, to look for patterns. Perhaps managers (and pretend managers) are recognizing that it takes will-power/grit/mindfulness to wake up early, just as it does to be a productive worker.

  • yes but if you told them that science now recognises that we all have different body clocks, making it natural for some to get up early and natural for some to get up later. We are all optimized to get up at different times. Correct their ideas on this and it will remove their bias that early risers must have greater will power. As it's untrue / a myth.

  • allenspicer

    I've been self-employed for the last few years. Starting the day late is a death sentence for productivity, at least in my personal experience. Does that make me a morning person? I don't believe that's a real disposition.

  • you are a morning person! some morning people think others must be the same- and then assume they must be lazy /crazy to lie in - when in fact they are just getting up the time that is right for them.

  • Scott Nushart

    I may be old fashioned, but at what point does the 'me' definition of time supplant the 'we' definition of time? Early morning meetings (5:45 to 7:00 a.m.) have been the norm in several of the Fortune 100 companies I have been with. Why? It gives you a chance to circumvent some sticky situations and prepares you to be on deck when clients (you know-the guys with the money...) begin calling in.

    One organization I was with began manufacturing at 6:30 a.m. In sourcing, we started at 6:00 or before. Our supervisor gave herself flexible hours of 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.-long after any critical start of day decisions had to be made, and well past the cessation of work on the shop floor. The organization suffered.

    One supervisor always joked with us that he was proud of his flex time policy. 'Start at 7:30 a.m. and stay as late past 8:00 p.m. as you salaried folks like!!'

  • This is very semantic. Need more details. I'm curious as to what new information came in early in the morning that did not mean these decisions could not be made the day before, at a time when all were in, e.g. at 4pm. It seems unfair to be making decisions when certain useful people are not there. win/win would be to make them when everybody useful is present - if that helps productivity as you stated. And clearly there is a big crossover time when you are present - so I cannot see the problem to be honest.

    Only the stock market would matter if decisions were made with new info. But even there you need people to work all hours anyway - as one market closes another one opens.