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The ESCP Professor tried to grasp employees’ interpretations of this increasingly popular phenomenon, investigating how flexible working materializes in everyday individual work experience by stepping into the shoes of a large consulting firm’s employees. She thereby advanced a perspective of flexibility based on the existence of a paradoxical tension between the perceived inducements offered by and contributions provided to the firm.

The advantages of workplace flexibility are being advocated by international institutions, national governments, professional, managerial, and employee organisations alike. But “the existing studies primarily focus on formalised flexibility policies and approved practices, and have yet to depict a comprehensive picture of employees’ experiences of flexible working”, explains ESCP Business School Associate Professor in Management Almudena Cañibano (Madrid campus) in her article published in Human Relations. “There is a lack of evidence regarding the mechanisms individuals deploy to manage the tensions emerging from flexible working”.

Her literature review shows that much focus has been placed on researching the outcomes of flexibility, finding contradictory and opposed results. According to her, this is partly the result of studies looking at flexibility with a binary approach, considering it either as an organization- or employee-oriented, HR defined and delimited practice. “By viewing flexible working with such an either-or lens, such studies overlook that employer and employee-oriented flexibility are simultaneous phenomena embedded in the way work is conducted and that employees have an active role in constructing and interpreting flexible working”. Indeed, she points out that recent literature has suggested that flexible working is characterised by paradoxes and involves tensions in its enactment, and that individual rationalities can play a substantive role in its construction.
This is why in order to contribute to the literature, she drew on the lens of the psychological contract to investigate employee lived experiences of ‘flexible working’ and consider flexibility as a part of the employment relationship, instead of as a set of defined HR-designed practices. Almudena Cañibano sought to answer two main questions: How do employees experience and define flexible working? How do individuals live, process, manage, and stabilize the paradoxical tensions generated by flexible working?

She thus conducted a qualitative case study within the Spanish branch of a large international consultancy firm, an ideal setting in which to acquire a better understanding of professional employees’ experiences and contribute to this debate: the characteristics of consulting jobs make flexibility a crucial aspect of people management. “A particular controversy also appears to exist with regards to how flexible working is understood and practiced in this context”, she adds.

Almudena Cañibano’s work provided broad support to the paradox approach to understanding flexibility, illustrated by the Taoist symbol of Yin and Yang which represents how apparently contrary forces may really be complementary, interlinked and inter-reliant.

As her study demonstrates, employees’ experiences of flexible working far exceed what could simply be read off from the set of approved flexible work arrangements and practices enshrined in formal HR policies. “Rather, individuals develop varied perceptions, expectations and ways of organizing flexible working, which emerge and evolve as they accumulate experience in a context where client-focused responsiveness is key”, she goes on. The paradoxical tensions that characterize workplace flexibility are experienced as evolving combinations of contributions and inducements. Employees manage these tensions in different ways, including vacillating between polar opposites and integrating contradictory elements, creating an overall mental picture of their flexible working experience.

Overall, this article contributes to developing the understanding of flexible working, seen and interpreted by employees as a process that is integral to the employment relationship. It offers new insights to help clarify the controversy that exists with regards to how flexibility is practiced and experienced in the context of consulting organisations, with likely implications for other professional service firms. It also contributes to the development of a further explanation of the apparent tensions identified in the literature on specialised knowledge workers.