Workplace Norms, Expectations and Responsibilities

As in any culture and society, norms and expectations evolve through:

  • Observing the behaviour of others,
  • Repeating behaviour that becomes an ingrained habit
  • Group narratives that turn into group expectations and
  • Company policies that are interpreted to align with individual and social expectations.

Every worker, whatever their individual differences, technology use, job demands, home-based responsibilities and level of remote and flexible working needs to daily negotiate, navigate and juggle the many ‘moving parts’ that are inherent in the norms and expectations that are either explicitly or implicitly synonymous with their profession, role, team dynamics, and company culture. 

The norms and expectations of how we ‘do work’ in an onsite location or remotely have shifted since 2020, but the fundamentals of what we expect of others from a productivity perspective remains consistent.

Workplace Norms

Workplace norms are a type of ‘social contract’ that includes agreed-on behaviour and mindsets that are accepted, monitored, judged and sanctioned by those within a specific office environment to ensure collaborative work and increased productivity [1].

These norms evolve and are nuanced by company, industry, environment, country and culture. Some workplace norms have emerged since the digitisation of the workplace (and before 2020) that defined how Knowledge Workers understand the working environment.

With the marketplace becoming increasingly more global, workers often need to liaise, consult or work on projects with colleagues, customers and suppliers across different time zones [2].  Many companies now offer 24/7 availability, as an integral part of their service, to remain competitive [3].  This constant requirement for non-stop servicing of colleagues and clients is creating a culture of ‘always on, always available’ connectivity.

 Additionally, employers often use long working hours as a substitute for employee commitment and productivity [4].  Many workers tend to put in long hours to meet employer expectations so as to be considered for a promotion or to reduce the chance of being included in the next round of resizing measures [4].  

Individual engagement in ICT during private hours can thus be driven by the need to conform to intrinsic work-based behaviour norms and expectations [5 & 6].

The perception of required actions, and implied norms, can have more influence over worker actions than the behavioural norms of others [5].  An example of this is the inclusion of an apology for the delay in responding to an email, which can suggest a strong implied norm of quick response rates [5].  

Workplace norms around long work hours are influenced by several factors (including, but not limited to):

1. The Work Commitment Narrative and Behavioural Norms

The revolution in computing and communication has facilitated a trend in a globalised capitalist culture of competitiveness, where companies are frequently restructuring, downsizing and resizing, creating an environment of insecure employment whilst simultaneously requiring employees to show a continued commitment to their work and employers [10 & 11].

The concept of the ‘work devotion schema’, was initially introduced in 2003 [8], and reflected the concept of the ideal worker, who had a single-minded commitment and loyalty to their work, manifested through the prioritisation of work commitments over family responsibilities [8 & 9]. This physical commitment to work has now been replaced by the ‘passion schema’, which requires workers to demonstrate their work commitment through an “intense drive, enthusiasm or even infatuation” with their work [11, p. 3].

Unlike the work devotion schema, requiring worker loyalty to the company, the passion schema encompasses the idea and belief that workers need to find their work “meaningful, fulfilling and stimulating”, showcasing both a work-specific and general life passion 11, p. 2].

Included in this schema, is a subconscious precedent around reliability and the expectation of 24/7 availability, especially among professionals and white-collar workers [10].

Gadgets that allow workers to connect anytime and anywhere means work is no longer contained within the four walls of an office, or a 9-to-5 role, geographically located away from home. It is now located “wherever the individuals take[s] their smartphone, pager, laptop or smartwatch”, whether that is at the office, at home, in transit or on vacation [2, p. 51].

The convenience of this connectivity level has allowed workers to be flexible about where and when they work but it also means that they have the availability to work well beyond the traditional workday [2].

Before the introduction of the Blackberry at the turn of the century [7], leaving a physical office building signalled the end of work. Workers were still able to take work home, or on holiday, with them, but there was limited expectation to engage with that work or with colleagues outside of office hours.

The Blackberry

Anecdotally, office narratives in the first decade of the 21st century about those who did have Blackberrys and used them to answer emails during holidays included statements such as “What are they doing answering emails, they’re on holiday?”

At that point, however, it was only those who were either at senior managerial level or had a front-line role in the company that were given a Blackberry. It was a signal and a perk for those who had ‘made it’.

For everyone else, unless a home office with work email access was pre-arranged, home-based work was intentional and uninterrupted by emails and messages.

Additional working hours, therefore, were spent at the office.

The Apple

The ability to connect to the office via a Blackberry, iPhone or Android shifted the after-hours work at the office to after-hours work during the commute or at home, especially the task of catching up on and clearing emails from the inbox.

It was the reduction in the size, weight and price of the laptop that reduced the need to carry physical paper to continue working after hours and physically shrunk and made work fully portable.

The impact of the fruit

Because an office desk was so portable and self-contained in one machine, more and more workers were able to ‘dial-in’ to the office system from an external location such as a hotel, client office, train or coffee shop and continue to function as if in the office (although at a substantially reduced speed).

Some companies also started experimenting with hot-desking and creating areas where workers could take their laptops to quieter areas to focus if needed.

The shift in the ‘ideal worker’ concept

The concept of the ideal worker was starting to be entrenched within the knowledge industrial complex where those most devoted to their work [8 & 9]. This single-minded commitment and loyalty to the company became an intrinsic part of this work devotion that included prioritising work over family life [9].

The expectation was compounded as globalised competition required companies to restructure and resize creating an environment and culture of employment uncertainty [10 & 11].

Work-based devotion/passion

Over the next decade, the work-based devotion morphed into an expectation of work-based passion. Going beyond devotion, this passion now required workers to display levels of enthusiasm for their work that bordered on obsession and, possibly driven by the cultural mantra of ‘finding work you love’, required employees to find their work consequential, gratifying and inspiring [11].

Although the convenience of connectivity has given workers the ability to become flexible about when and where they work, the subconscious precedent expectation of being available 24/7 means workers are relentlessly available way beyond the traditional workday [10].

2. Face-to-Face Time Bias, Flexibility Bias

It is not just availability and response times that are subject to workplace norms. Very little research exists on some work-based norms such as workplace flexibility bias and its impact on the behaviours and health of workers who engage in flexibility versus those who do not [12].

There are two types of face-to-face time – “dynamic face time” where workers are engaging in face-to-face interaction in the office and “passive face time” where workers are seen spending non-interactive time in the office being observed by others ‘doing work’ [13, p. 736] .

Passive face time is often subconsciously used by managers as shorthand to infer personality traits such as employee responsibility, dependability and dedication [14 & 13].

Passive face-time bias has a significant impact on those who spend large amounts of time working away from the office but has a limited effect on those who engage in occasional flexible or remote working. However, those who do engage in part-time or remote work are subject to a workplace schema that affects their promotability and perceived abilities. This includes a perceived lack of character, discipline, tenacity [15] and devotion to the company [10], and these workers are often considered unworthy of promotion [87].

This has the potential to negatively affect, and cause anxiety among, those who engage in flexible or remote working [13] as these employees are less likely to receive better work projects or enjoy career progression compared to those who spend more physical time in the office and at specific work events [14].

Another element of face-time bias manifests amongst those employees without childcare responsibilities who are ‘left in the office’, feeling that they carry more of the workload and are more committed to work than parents who use flexible benefits or spend less ‘in-office face time’ [17 & 18].

Those who spend the majority of their time away from the office, or are located remotely, feel that the only way to directly compete with those able to do extensive in-office face-time is by engaging in extreme behaviours that continually signal their commitment and dependability to others, especially superiors [14].

This productivity signalling behaviour includes working longer hours, attending all meetings and being on all calls, amending schedules on a whim and taking on last-minute projects [14]. The effort required to do this type of signalling over the long term requires extensive and costly personal sacrifices and can lead to feelings of frustration and being ineffective, which can result in feelings of physical exhaustion [14].

Although there are similarities by gender, the perceptions associated with teleworkers do differ [15]. These differences will be discussed below.

3. Gender-Bias Perceptions

While more workplaces have embraced greater flexibility around telework for parents [19], there are gender differences around work-based expectations, especially regarding working hours and work commitment [10].

Historically organisations have allowed more flexible benefits for mothers to allow them to re-enter the workforce [17]. Mothers who wish to do so, however, are often faced with flexibility stigma and devotion bias [17]. They are less likely to be promoted [15] and are more likely to be subject to a belief that they struggle with work-family conflict (WFC) [20 & 10].

Concerning this, managers generally perceive that family commitment and childcare responsibilities are more of a struggle for women than for men, and women are therefore more likely to experience WFC [20& 21].

A European Working Conditions Survey, however, found that more men (20%) said their work commitments were incompatible with personal or family commitments compared to 16% of women who found that the two conflicted [22]. On the matter of productivity, assumptions are often made by both female and male managers that married women and/or mothers are less productive within the workplace [20].

In direct contrast to this perception, it was found that women tend to create stronger boundaries than men between work and family life [21]. They surmised that these stronger boundaries indicated that women were more “psychologically present in the domain where they physically are located, regardless of which domain it is” [21, p. 1613], and that working mothers and/or married women are more absorbed in their work while in the office due to their obligation to fulfil work tasks within office hours, whilst anticipating their need to fulfil private commitments and obligations within their private hours [23].

In addition to the perceived inability to be focussed on and committed to their jobs, mothers are less likely to be promoted and more likely to hit a ‘glass ceiling’ than single, childless women, as managers are more likely to view women as incompatible with higher level management positions within the company [20].

Generally, females are stereotyped as being emotional, nurturing, relationship-oriented and less committed to their work [24]. If mothers, however, do choose to focus more on work, it signals to others that are they not emotionally absorbed in motherhood and parenting, and are thereby opening themselves up to being sanctioned as bad mothers [10].

Mothers are therefore often torn between the work-devotion and family-devotion schemas, and if they do participate in flexible working practices, they are also potentially subject to career derailment as a result of reduced face-time in the office [10].

In a similar way to women, men who engage in flexible working practices, are less likely to receive a promotion or be allowed employer-paid training [15]. Although both men and women tend to feel similar levels of distress over long work hours and work-family conflict, organisations do not recognise the distress and conflict that men can experience [10].

In contrast to women, men are subjected to a different form of work-devotion schema – an expectation to demonstrate family devotion (i.e. being a good husband and father) by being a good worker and “put[ting] in long hours at work” [10, p. 65]. This includes being available and accessible in the workplace at all times [25].

Conflict arises for men due to Western socio-cultural expectations having shifted for fathers, from that of being solely a breadwinner to being more actively involved in child-rearing [25].

From an organisational perspective, however, any show of the desire for greater involvement in home life, including demonstrations of frustration that long working hours may be impinging on family time, invokes its own level of penalties [10]. These penalties include being viewed as gender deviants and not sufficiently masculine [26]. This often means that men set aside their identity and nurturing needs as a father so they can better fulfil their identity as the ideal worker [25].

The general stereotype of men being competitive, rational and more committed to their careers [24] has an impact on whether or not men take up the option of flexible work, in their attempt to create a better work-life balance and/or to engage in child-care responsibilities [25].

When men do seek and engage in flexible working practices it is usually assumed to be for reasons of career advancement rather than for family and childcare responsibilities, reinforcing assumed gender-based stereotypes [27].

In considering genders and flexible working, Vandello et al. (2013) found that women and men placed equal value on flexible working practices and, excluding financial benefits, valued this above all other organisational compensation.  Even promotional opportunities and the ability to be autonomous within their roles were not as highly valued as flexible working practices and work-life balance (Vandello et al., 2013).  However, employees who do engage in company programmes or allowances that help manage the family-work roles, may fear they are signalling to the company that they have family demands that require outside help, which may influence managers’ perceptions of their performance (Hoobler et al., 2009) and may lead to being stigmatised as being less dedicated and having a lower work ethic (Cech & O’Connor, 2017).  Additionally, Vandello et al. (2013) found that men were less likely to seek out work flexibility benefits due to being perceived as less masculine.  Women were more likely to seek these flexibility benefits due to being perceived as less feminine than if they continued with traditional working hours after the birth of a child (Vandello et al., 2013).

Flexible-work bias not only affects those who directly engage in flexitime, but also those who never make use of this flexitime, due to cultural assumptions that any time taken to manage personal responsibilities will have a negative career repercussion (Cech & O’Connor, 2017).  Workplace flexitime bias can lead to overall worker health problems, greater use of sick days, lower sleep quality, higher depression symptoms and negative work-family spill over (Cech & O’Connor, 2017).  This impacts everyone in the company (Cech & O’Connor, 2017).

4. Communication Response Times

Since email communications became a normative part of business in the 1990’s, the expectations around their use and response times has dramatically shifted. When emails went mobile, with the introduction of the Blackberry at the turn of the century, the convenience of staying on top of emails quickly turned into the expectation to respond to emails anytime from anywhere. 

This soon steered us into an ‘always on, always available’ workplace culture that expected quick response times, even on weekends, evenings and holidays.

What we usually don’t think about is how quickly our response time is not solely driven by company policies or cultural norms, but rather by our internal perceptions of how quickly the sender expects a response. How many of us keep our email and messenger apps open all day, responding within minutes to requests – because that is our expectation of the group norm?

This is also what drives us to check our emails last thing at night and again first thing in the morning. We don’t want to be left behind on a group chat or be perceived as unproductive or a lousy team player. 

As a business culture, we need to take a step back from these norms and find a way to de-escalate response time expectations. Being constantly connected to e-comms keeps stress levels heightened and reduces the ability to re-energise in private time, which then affects both the quality and quantity of sleep, which in turn reduces overall productivity levels. 

5. A Culture of Busyness

Another aspect of the work commitment narrative is that of being seen to be busy within the workplace.  This stems from a subtle undercurrent of workplace expectations that are prevalent within Western culture [28] and the notion that “busyness, and not leisure has become the ‘badge of honor’” [29, p. 312].

Relatively long working hours are characteristic of those who are most privileged and placed higher up in society [29].

Socio-cultural codes have evolved to imply that the fast-paced working life, driven and empowered by technology, are both positive and expected norms of successful paid employment, especially for men whose role is still mainly seen as an employee and provider [28].

As increased workloads shoehorn time into becoming a scarce and valuable resource, workers no longer use leisure activities and possessions alone as an indicator of status but now include levels of busyness as a visible status symbol – suggestive of the level of perceived social mobility and success a worker has achieved [30].

Where workers compete for roles based on the ‘knowledge value’ they bring to an organisation, busyness can be used as a way to signal their scarcity as a resource [30]. This can help set apart their human-capital value, competence, productivity and work engagement within a ‘knowledge intensive’ marketplace [30].

This busyness status is showcased through the amount of time spent doing work versus the time engaged in leisure activities, how productive and efficient a worker is and the level of satisfaction they receive from their work [30].

These workplace norms, synonymous with expectations of greater commitment to work, result in employees feeling pressured to work harder to manage work commitments [31]. This includes spending more hours at work [32], staying constantly connected to technology [33] and responding to ICT at any time [28] and from anywhere [34].

It results in blurred work-family boundaries through working at home, skipping meals and quality family time and having to cut back on sleep and personal activities to get the work done [35]. It also includes giving up personal commitments to manage organisational requirements such as travelling on weekends to make early Monday morning or late Friday afternoon meetings [36].

Being seen to be busy i.e. in the office, in front of a screen tapping away at a keyboard, is synonymous with being productive and successful. Being seen to be busy means you are more likely to be promoted and have a higher salary. 

However, how do you signal to your manager and team that you are being busy and productive (known as ‘productivity signalling‘) when you’re working remotely?

The way we do this is by: 

  • attending every video conference we’re invited to, even if we don’t need to be there
  • taking on extra projects – showing our willingness to do extra work and be a valuable member of the team
  • sending emails throughout the day and evening
  • using traditional commute times to work longer hours

However, this leads to: 

  • more cognitive energy being used during longer hours, which
  • reduces recovery time for the next day, and the ability to sleep properly, which means (in the same way that an only 1/2 charged phone has lower energy levels to last the full day), 
  • we are less able to concentrate and more easily distracted the following day, leading to 
  • longer working hours needed (but less productivity) to get the same level of work done…
6. Supervisor and Co-Worker Support

These perceived social pressures and subjective workplace norms to work harder and stay connected for longer are strongly influenced by the framing of narratives and actions within organisations. These may influence working parents’ drive and desire to put in additional hours in private time to fill any productivity gaps that are perceived around their contribution to team-based activities and overall productivity levels [6, 18 & 37].

Although colleagues have a strong influence on the norms and expectations around engaging with work-based communication after hours, supervisors who are perceived as role models regarding the behavioural expectations of a team, are particularly likely to influence and set the tone for workplace norms [6].

Prescriptive norms have a great influence on workers’ descriptive norms [5].  It is important, therefore, for employers and supervisors to set in place policies and work ethics that encourage better boundary-setting practices, thereby allowing employees to manage their own work-life balance preferences [5].

Despite these policies being a good start to help employees monitor ICT during private time it is, however, still supervisor and co-workers normative behaviour and expectations which play a bigger role in ICT monitoring activities after hours [38].


[1]; [2] Bergen & Bressler, 2019; [3] Mattern, 2020; [4] Jauch, 2020; [5] Barber & Santuzzi, 2015; [6] Derks et al., 2015; [7]; [8] Blair-Loy & Jacobs, 2003; [9] Epstein & Kalleberg, 2004; [10] Padavic et al., 2020; [11] Rao & Tobias Neely, 2019; [12] Cech & O’Connor, 2017; [13] Elsbach et al., 2010; [14] Cristea & Leonardi, 2019; [15] Possenriede et al. , 2014; [16] Williams et al., 2013; [17] Bian & Wang, 2019; [18] Kossek et al., 2011; [19] Bianchi & Milkie, 2010; [20] Hoobler et al., 2009; [21] Shockley et al., 2017; [22] Parent-Thirion et al., 2017; [23] Dumas and Perry-Smith, 2018; [24] Beno, 2019; [25] Ewald et al., 2020; [26] Berdahl & Moon, 2013; [27] Vandello et al., 2013; [28] Lashewicz et al., 2020; [29] Gershuny, 2005; [30] Bellezza et al., 2016; [31] Landers et al., 1996; [32] Jauch, 2020; [33] Nevin & Schieman, 2020; [34] Barber et al., 2019; [35] Landers et al., 1996; [36] Higgins & Duxbury, 2005; [37] Schmoll, 2019; [38] Becker et al., 2018.

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