Why Bosses Are Inflexible About Flexible Work Arrangements

Ever feel like your boss just doesn’t understand you? That’s because they don’t—and that’s especially true when it comes to flexible working.

Future Forum, a research group backed by Slack, runs its quarterly “Pulse” survey of 10,000 knowledge workers alongside focus groups with their bosses across six countries, including the US and UK. For the latest iteration, the Pulse study focused on the lockdown-imposed home-working experiment and the slow return to the office—and it’ll come as no surprise to find out that management are rather more keen to see staff at their desks than leave them working from home.

The study showed that executives are more than twice as likely to want to get back to the office full time—every single working day, just like in the “before times”—than their employees, with 44 percent of executives longing for their commutes and fluorescent lighting versus 17 percent of their staff. Some bosses are willing to offer a bit of flexibility, with two-thirds of execs saying they want to work in the office most of the time or all of the time.

But staff—or, as the survey identifies them, “non-executive” knowledge workers—don’t agree. More than three-quarters (76 percent) said they want flexibility in whether they work from home or the office, and even more, 93 percent, want flexibility in when they work.

Why Bosses Don’t Listen

What’s behind this disconnect? Brian Elliot, executive leader at Future Forum and senior vice president at Slack, highlights three main problems. First, execs are more content at work than their employees, posting work satisfaction scores 62 percent above non-executive staff, Elliot says. And no wonder: They have better homes, better offices, and better pay.

“Even if they’re working from home, executives have better resources,” he says. “They’ve got a nice house with plenty of space, the ability to afford childcare when schools are closed.” And when they are at work, he adds, execs get offices with doors that shut rather than open-plan hot desks, plus autonomy and flexibility in their work—they are in charge, after all. “Executives are having a much better experience,” Elliot says.

So it’s no surprise that execs are happier in the office than the rest of us, but some also suffer a wider form of confirmation bias, says Elliot, assuming we’re just as satisfied as they are with the setup. This second problem Elliot refers to as a “focus group of one”: it’s the assumption that, because an exec may have worked their way up through the ranks, they know what current staff are thinking, despite the many changes that have happened in the intervening decades, notably around technology and collaboration tools. “This bugs me: 66 percent of executives in our survey told us that their future work plans are being constructed with little to no direct input from employees themselves,” he says.

The third problem highlighted by Elliot is a lack of transparency: Some of the impact of these executive assumptions would be mitigated if bosses shared their future work plans with staff and bothered to listen to their opinions. The survey showed that fewer than half of employees believe their bosses are being transparent about future plans.

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