Flexible Working in the Public Sector - a Case of Inflexibility: Senior Managers’ Experiences

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Purpose: The public sector is often considered the vanguard in terms of the availability and promotion of flexible working arrangements (FWAs). Despite this, little is known about how senior managers in the public sector engage with FWAs. This paper aims to address this gap, reporting on a number of issues, including the reality of FWAs, the existence of a flexibility stigma and whether this is gendered, and the drivers influencing the uptake of FWAs. Design/methodology/approach: Theoretical insights of flexibility stigma from the literature and data from semi-structured interviews with senior managers in the Northern Ireland Civil Service explore the realities of FWAs at this level. Findings: The findings indicate a decoupling between the rhetoric and reality of FWAs, with few senior managers availing of such arrangements. The authors also identify a complex web of issues that constrain senior managers' agency in shaping a positive culture of FWAs at senior management level in the Civil Service, including an inherent resistance to flexibility, a lack of visible role models and negative perceptions around progression. The findings also indicate deeply held perceptions among senior males and females that availing of FWAs is associated with a flexibility stigma. These perceptions were confirmed by the small number of senior females with caring responsibilities who were availing of FWAs. Research limitations/implications: The paper provides senior managers and human resource practitioners with insights into the difficulties associated with wide-scale FWA availability and use at senior levels of the Civil Service. Originality/value: The findings of the study offer valuable insights into the experience of senior managers in the public sector as they engage with FWAs. The study, therefore, contributes to the limited literature in this area.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1273-1289
Number of pages17
JournalEmployee Relations
Issue number6
Early online date21 Apr 2022
Publication statusPublished online - 21 Apr 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors wish to acknowledge the generous funding to support this research received from the former Office of the Minister and Deputy First Minister, Northern Ireland.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, Emerald Publishing Limited.


  • Flexible working arrangements
  • Public sector
  • Civil Service
  • Flexibility stigma
  • Senior managers
  • Research Paper


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