A 2014 paper from the White House's Council of Economic Advisors outlines the concerns many firms have around the cost and difficulty of implementing flexible work policies, with most simply not being informed of the potential net savings available through productivity increases, lower employee turnover and reduced absenteeism.
While some companies have been slow to adopt such policies, an innovative study cited in the paper shows that investors have confidence in those that do: On average the stock price of a Fortune 500 company rises by 0.36 in the days following the announcement of work-life balance initiatives. It’s suggested that while flexibility itself has its benefits – it’s also a sign of good management in the company.
The management qualities and the processes required to make flexible working a success, are little different to those that keep a team running efficiently on any schedule. Before we look at best practices for flexible working, let’s quickly define the term.
In this case, flexibility comes from giving employees that freedom to adjust their work schedules to fit with commitments like picking up children from day-care, or occasionally wanting to work from outside of the office – as opposed to the strict enforcement of office hours, or a formal telecommuting policy.
The benefits of flexibility will be limited if they bring with them the hassle of counting hours, and monitoring if 30 minutes spent elsewhere during normal office hours are completed at another time. Instead, flexibility can be complemented with an agile work-style based on commitments and expected results.
Most would agree that focusing on results sounds like a better approach to work in general, but removing the obligation to be at your desk for set hours, emphasises planning what you really want to achieve from work – rather than just how long you should spend on it.
This requires setting clear deliverables and targets, and holding team members accountable for reaching them.
On the subject of accountability – for flexibly to really succeed, employees should work to commitments they’ve made to one another, rather simply to you as their manager. This is healthy for any team, according to research from Joseph Grenny (author of three NYT bestsellers) which shows broadly that:
As the team’s leader, it’s your job to promote this level of peer-accountability. During one-on-one conversations with employees, you can ensure they understand this policy applies equally to everyone, and they have the autonomy to decide what’s best for them – in return for meeting their team commitments.
With flexible hours, perhaps you’ll have some employees who start and finish later than others, and vice versa. But what if you need something from a colleague – a file, a status update, etc. – and they’re not around?
Sending an email, Slack message, or calling a meeting, might not get you what you need in time. Rather than mandating that everyone be on call all the time, you can instead aim to make sure information is structured and easy to find on demand.
Organisation tools like Podio, Basecamp, and Asana, along with CRMs like SalesForce, are designed with this approach in mind. The onus is then on team members to keep projects, leads, etc., up to date in these systems. Presented as the alternative to interruptions, reporting, and more meetings, this can be a more attractive and efficient option for everyone.
The advice regarding flexible work universally emphasises trusting employees. This is worthy focus, but it's too shallow to simply suggest flicking a trust switch. When introducing flexibility, clearly explaining the change from a time to a commitments and results based approach, while ensuring employees know they can use flexibility without negative consequences, is a practical start to build trust from all parties over time.
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