Is there a secret to flexible working?
Alex Graves, CEO of Silicon Reef and an expert in modern working models and technology, explains that trust needs to be given, not earned from now on and trust is the true secret of flexible working.
Rules allowing employees to demand flexible working from day one in a job are on the table. This could lead to an additional two million people being able to operate remotely. But if this is to work, management culture must change.
At the moment too many leadership teams are in the dark ages when it comes to flexibility, despite having their arms twisted throughout the pandemic. As Mother Pukka, the blogger and “flex-appeal” advocate said back in 2015, “Our employers are oafs: unimaginative, overly cautious, and unwilling to think beyond the 9-5.”
You might think things have changed in the past six years, yet one boss recently gained national media attention for branding home workers as “lazy, spoilt and entitled.” While this might be an extreme example, there’s a lingering attitude that flexible working means bunking off.
Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing. Employees don’t slack off when they work flexibly. They’ve got jobs to do, and if they don’t do them, they’ll soon be found out. Furthermore, how can leaders instantly mistrust their new hires? That simply points to poor recruitment processes.
With new legislation on the horizon, the tables must turn. Trust must now be given, not earned. Employers need to have confidence in their staff from the start. The question is, how do we change this embedded and backward culture?
Grow up and get a grip
The first thing bosses need to do is grow up and get a grip. Do they like commuting for hours and never seeing their kids? Or spending a fortune on travel? No, and neither do their staff. Forcing people to work in the office against their will breeds resentment and stress.
In contrast, flexible working hugely benefits businesses. The Chartered Institute for Professional Development (CIPD) has shown that it attracts talent, improves engagement, boosts job satisfaction and loyalty, reduces absenteeism, enhances well-being, supports retention and progression, increases productivity, develops business outcomes, and helps firms become more agile and able to respond to market changes.
Forget rigid rules
To make the most of these benefits, leaders need to bin their old ways of thinking. Flexible working means just that – it needs to flex. So don’t be tempted to grudgingly set strict rules. There needs to be variance because a working pattern for a young mum or dad will be different to that of a 20-something struggling with shared accommodation, or a worker with caring responsibilities for an older family member.
However, you must set targets and agree outputs for each member of staff. These must focus on outputs and outcomes rather than dictating how they’re met or when to work. Equally, don’t give the impression that an employee can do everything on their terms. If they say they’re a night bird and want to work a night shift, it probably isn’t going to work if all their colleagues are working in the day. Perhaps consider core hours and set parameters in which to succeed.
A workplace manifesto is a good middle ground. It can make clear how everyone is expected to act, but equally, what staff can expect of their leaders. Google has recently introduced this with a list of things it’s OK to do, say and feel. Examples included, “it’s OK to stand, sit or lie down for meetings” and “it’s OK to not check email or Ping out of hours”. Others are more emotive, such as, “it’s OK ask for help, it’s OK to have a cry and it’s OK to smile.”
Live it and encourage working out loud
Managers need to lead from the front and embrace flexible working in their own lives. It sets the tone for everyone and allows people to get their work done without worrying that secretly they’ll have a black mark against them.
This means being visible and “working out loud” to illustrate what progress is being made. For example, engaging in chats on collaboration tools, sharing work on workstreams and commenting on documents. By setting this precedence and encouraging others to do the same, it’s far easier for managers to see how work is progressing than if everyone is head-down in the office.
Leaders, perhaps more than anyone else, need to stay connected to staff. This can be through team catch-ups and townhalls or through one-to-one sessions where progress can be checked. But remember that people are humans too – leaders need to ask how their staff are, not just what they’ve achieved.
Managers also need to resist the temptation to micro-manage. With a framework set and an agreed set of objectives, there really is no need to be an overbearing taskmaster who reinforces presenteeism remotely. Conversely, they need to avoid becoming the slackers they might fear staff are. One hint of there being “one rule for us and another for them” will instantly break the trust that must be given on all sides.
Start as you mean to go on
If someone is working flexibly from day one, they need to be onboarded and introduced from the start despite not being in the same room as colleagues. There are simple ways to achieve this, such as new starters creating a profile to be shared on collaboration tools or emailed to the relevant people.
This can be a personal and informal introduction that helps to build a picture of the newbie: what are their passions, do they have a cat, what will they drink if you’re doing a tea round? This provides prompts for later discussions and socialising. Buddy systems are also a good idea and don’t rely on being in the office to make someone feel part of the team.
Get the right tech
The pandemic has given us a head start here. Most businesses will have tools in place such as Teams, Zoom, Slack, Monday or other software. Yet an amazing 39% of people say they miss the tools and technology they need to work effectively from home. This needs to change – quick.
Furthermore, it needs to go beyond simply being able to make a Teams call now and again. Firms need effective file-share systems, VPNs, professional development platforms and more. These not only support staff, but for those leaders who still feel a little needy and want reassurance that their workforce isn’t watching Netflix all day, they can log on to see how productive a project is and how people are engaging and providing input. Far from being out of sight, employees can be more visible than ever when working flexibly.
But this must not become a matter of monitoring staff. This is the antithesis of collaborative, flexible working. Despite this, the use of desktop monitoring software has soared in the pandemic. It can, for example, observe how long a mouse stays static on a screen to alert leaders to long periods of inactivity. This type of monitoring is arbitrary, measures presenteeism, not output, and is another point at which trust could be broken.
Culture is key
With this in mind, it’s important to remember that technology is just a tool to be used or misused. The bigger issue here is embedding cultural change and getting everyone to buy into a new way of working, facilitated by technology, not dictated by it.
The rules are going to change. Organisations that stick with old fashioned views and try to resist the tide of progress will be the ones that fail. Staff will leave in their droves, unbelieving that they could be treated with such contempt. Those that remain will focus on being in the office, rather than getting the job done, slashing productivity.
Businesses that put trust at the heart of what they do and then take steps to embed a culture that supports it will succeed. When the decision is quite as stark as this, it’s easy to decide what needs to be done: give trust from day one – and work hard to keep it.