The Flexibility Gap: How Remote Workers Get The Worst Of Both Worlds

Working hard but not getting what they deserve: Remote workers fall into a disadvantaged category when it comes to promotions and burn out.

The Flexibility Gap: How Remote Workers Get The Worst Of Both Worlds
[Photo: HconQ via Shutterstock]

People who work remotely full-time fall into a frustrating gap: They’re more likely to log more productive hours than their in-office colleagues, yet they have to work harder than the rest to prove themselves for promotions and recognition.


Over 9% of the U.S. workforce works from home at least part of the time–most of whom are fully remote, with the remainder working “mixed” hours, with flexible schedules and locations. Yet most workplace cultures haven’t caught up with the shift toward balanced and complex working lives, combined with the technology to work fully remote.

Studies show that working from home makes many people more productive and committed to their jobs. A recent study showed that companies stand to benefit from a full extra workday, less sick days or long lunches, and thousands of dollars in furniture, supplies, and utilities savings when employees worked remotely.

But being out of sight really does put workers out of mind for advancement. Straying from the accepted norm of 9-5 desk jockey life requires a redefinition of how devotion looks. Despite advances in company cultures and society’s progression in work-life balance, many companies still insist that work be the number one priority in an employee’s life. If where you invest face time is where your priorities lie, then remote workers are at a steep disadvantage–even when they’re working harder than their peers.

And it affects everyone: men, women, single parents, millennials and gen Xers alike. Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, calls it “equal-opportunity misery” in a recent article in the Atlantic.


Several Fast Company staff experimented with working from home as part of a recent Habit Challenge to see if the lack of distraction would make us more productive. The lack of boundaries was a common discovery, giving rise to a new workday feeling: guilt.

I’ve been working from home for several months and for me, it’s become too easy to roll out of bed and into work, stay glued to tasks until late in the evening, then return to my laptop for a quick check of email or to tweak a project. Knowing that I’m not present means keeping my phone on me at all times–from my desk, to the kitchen, to the bathroom, to get coffee–in case I missed an email or work chat.

Yet I still feel that nagging guilt for not doing more, pushing harder all day to make up for the ease of a commute-free, cubicle-free workday. Would my work show enough effort, when to some people, my absence essentially said, “Gone fishing”?

Williams strikes right to the bone on why this culture hasn’t changed, despite an increasing number of workers preferring flexibility. From “The Hidden Cost Of A Flexible Job”:

“One of the reasons that this [culture] has proved so unbelievably difficult to change is that the winners of the system are the breadwinners who saw very little of their children,” she explains. “It’s an identity-threat situation; they have an incredible amount invested in proving that’s the only way to be a professional. Because, if it isn’t, why did they do it? How come they don’t know their children?”

When will the culture of “time on task” and busy catch up with the changing needs of workers?

[via the Atlantic]

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.