All managers know the feeling when you are up against tight deadlines, facing another internal restructure and out of nowhere a flexible working request comes through. To many an overstretched manager this request can create significant feelings of being overwhelmed and apprehension based on our own unconscious biases and past experiences. The easiest thing to do is the reject the request. BUT, what if managers were able to treat flexible working requests as a routine interaction, had the skills and resources to find the best solution for all concerned and felt that whatever the outcome they had the knowledge to manage flexible workers well?
Wouldn't it feel amazing to overcome #flex fears and manage with confidence?
To really understand the negative reactions that some managers feel towards flexible working requests requires taking a deep dive into the three myths of #flex. Having strategies in place to counteract these myths is vital for to allow all colleagues to find their personal juggle.
1. Myth of the Inaccessible Worker
One of the primary reasons that managers feel uncomfortable with flexible working is a concern around access. More specifically that they can 'never' get hold of a remote/WFH worker when they need them. This myth presumes that every office located employee sits at their desk for 7-8 hours and never leaves, that they are always accessible by phone and e-mail and never attends in person meetings or go out for lunch/grab a tea/have a watercooler chat/pick up something from the shops. We all know that this is not true. Similarly those working from home fully or on an ad hoc basis will go out to stretch their legs, make a cup of tea and perhaps even call their gran for a ten minute catch up.
Solution: Create a team working agreement
When a colleague is working from home or at an alternative agreed location it is important to set expectations, whether this is an ad hoc arrangement or a longer term fully remote role. This can most easily be done through the creation of a team working agreement, enforced equally by all team members. This should cover both in office and remote working expectations.
For example when working from home there could be a communication expectation that your Messenger or Teams service should be open and that significant time taken away from desk is visible to the whole team. To create real cultural change senior members of staff should also ensure that they visibly take time away from their desk, wherever they work, for example during their gym hour or one off personal appointments, thereby creating a culture of balance and openness. The specific working arrangement should be set and agreed by the team as whole and reviewed at least once a year.
An effective working agreement delinks location and productivity, whilst also reducing individual bias
2. The Myth of the Slacker
Building on the concerns around access is the second largest #flex myth, that employees working from home slack off. We all know how the story goes; someone asks where Sam is only to be told he is working from home, followed by the wink wink. The myth of the slacking flex worker is predicated on two assumptions.
The first is that all office focused workers are working at 100% all the time. There is simply no evidence to suggest that preseentism equals productivity. I have personally been in meetings rooms with senior members of staff talking through their concerns about remote workers while an in-office worker is sitting on a laptop searching for properties in plain view.
The second assumption is that none of us belong to global teams. In the past 14 years I have only had a boss in the same location as me for a total of four years, very early on in my career. For several years I was in fact the only person in my team in a specific office location. So how does my current Geneva based boss know how well I am working, whether I'm in the London office or working from home?
Solution: Create common working practices
The real concern around this myth is one of a loss of control. The vast majority of corporate workers are employed by international companies and the many of us manage people globally. My boss manages people in four different locations and in order to do that he accepted that he needed to find alternative ways to measure his teams' productivity rather than preseentism. As with the inaccessibility myth the main way to overcome a reliance on preseentism is to establish clear working practices within a team agreed working agreement. Take the time to really hear each team members concerns and think about ways of working that mitigate those concerns while also allowing people to work in a more flexible and autonomous way, whatever their location.
Within my team we use a mixture of bi-weekly one to one calls, as well as multiple cross team collaboration calls and Teams groups as a means of ensuring effective collaboration no matter where colleagues are located. We also know that the key way we are held accountable for our productivity is client feedback. I can assure you if I wasn't being productive my clients would soon let their account manager know and my boss would immediately be in the phone.
Agree to a common set of working practices within a clear working agreement and let your staff flourish
3. The Myth of the Undercommited Worker
Part-time work is still often considered to be the 'mummy track' within organisations, allowing for a slowdown in performance and progression. The reality could not be further from the truth. Part-time work is now also considered a viable working pattern for many employee types, such as older workers looking for staggered retirement and Gen Z colleagues looking to pursue a extra curricular interests or set up personal projects. These workers bring experiences and a diversity of thought that will allow for more inclusive and innovative decision making.
Part-time is no longer a downgrading of ambition but rather an effective challenge to the corporate echo chamber
I've worked part-time for 14 years and for the majority of that time most of my colleagues have been unaware of my flex status. During that time I have not avidly hidden my reduced working hours, in fact I've been a very vocal and open advocate for the past seven years. I'm just highly productive. Access to part-time hours has allowed me to find my personal juggle and there is increasing evidence that the gratitude felt by part-time workers often leads to a significant productivity boost.
Solution: Think of your team workflow in terms of tasks rather than roles
While part-time workers are no less committed and often outperform their peers the reality is that by working less hours some tasks will need to be re-allocated and considerations need to be made for an already overstretched team in some cases. By successfully re-allocating those tasks and allowing part-time workers to maintain high value actions you are ensuring success all around.
The requesting colleague needs to start with a two week time audit to help them understand all their tasks and stakeholder obligations. They can then seek to refocus on the higher value interactions and tasks and help re-allocate the less technical tasks to team members who need growth assignments. This is also a great time for managers to review all team member actions. Are there any tasks that can be automated or even stopped, freeing up time for all individuals to focus on higher value productivity?
Challenge yourself to focus on individual contribution over defined role and working hours.
I would hope that in ten years we no longer need to celebrate flexible workers as the Ideal Worker mode of working will have been consigned to history. Setting up clear working agreements and practices alongside a move to tasks over roles will support the normalization of flexible working and give colleagues the autonomy to suit their lives.
If you enjoyed this post please check out the rest of my blog here, including my posts on encouraging flex climbers and understanding if shortening the working week is the key to better employee engagement.
All opinions are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.