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Flexible working policies: three things to make crystal clear

Published 14th March 2017 by Melissa Farrington
Flexible working paperwork

Policies are important because they set out in writing what the organisation believes and expects.

But let’s be clear: the ‘real’ policy, or what actually happens, comes down to what employees believe and feel in the atmosphere at work - the prevailing culture.

We’ve identified three things that organisations need to make totally clear, both in policies but also in the real world, for flexible working to truly work in the long-term.

The start and end of boundaries

Human beings like to know where they stand. Uncertainty leads to discomfort, assumptions and paranoia. That’s why communication is seen as such an important skill in organisational life, because it allows us to reduce ambiguity.

The more ambiguity that exists within a situation or initiative, the more we must coherently and overtly display and reinforce the boundaries of where the ambiguity starts and end.

Flexible working is designed with ambiguity in mind, allowing individuals to pick the most suitable working arrangements based on a range of personal variables, some of which do not change (such as their personality type or the amount of sleep they need to function well) and some of which that do (bereavement, children being ill or cars breaking down).

This means that people require different things from flexible working at different times and if they don’t feel they can change their requirements they do not know where they stand, and as above that leads to discomfort and assumptions and a regression back to the status quo.

Policies must, therefore, be crystal clear on the degree that employees can change their flexible working patterns, and the upper and lower limits on what patterns are appropriate, as well as whether they need to notify their managers of the change, of whether they need to ‘check in’ when their patterns deviate the most from the norm, and other things that people will worry about when they change their pattern and essentially feel like the spotlight may fall on them.

That management is by outcome, not presence

Sitting at home away from the office, it can be easy to think you’re far from your manager’s mind.

And unfortunately, there’s lots of research that suggests employees that are physically observed by managers are judged to be more productive than those working off-site. In fact, those working off-site may get lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their office-based colleagues.

Employees must trust the organisation manages by outcome, not presence, and this requires transparency over reporting metrics and KPIs, full training that involves line managers and employees, clear behavioural role modelling of outcome-centred management and constant reinforcement through recognition of good results. It’s not easy, but it’s the proper bedrock of effective flexible working.

It’s also important employees know WHEN it’s being measured. Put another way, they need to know when someone will hold them accountable. Is it daily? Is it weekly? The longer the period, the more they are able to work flexibly, moving towards the outcome at their own pace. Each organisation will need to find a period that works for its history, industry and culture.

Variance, not conformity, is the norm

When we think of role modeling, we think of conformity: of leaders ‘toeing the line’ to show employees the ‘right’ thing to do. This works for certain initiatives where there are obvious optimal behaviours the organisation wants employees to adopt, but with flexible working the behaviours are optimal based on the needs of each individual employee, rather than the organisation.

This means that leaders can only role model what works for them, and it’s important they also each role model something different so employees feel confident they can act in a way that is unique to themselves, rather than conforming to a specific organisational viewpoint. This is much easier - and more natural - if you have a diverse leadership team.

Why can’t you just give examples of different flexible working lifestyles in policies? You should, but it’s not enough. The real policy is felt in the atmosphere and in what employees deem is acceptable: for flexible working to work, they must feel that the spectrum of acceptability is broad.