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Flexible working practices: how HR can help managers get results

Published 6th July 2017 by Investors in People
Home worker doing flexible working

HR has two jobs when it comes to supporting managers with flexible working. Firstly, to ensure the process of dealing with flexible working requests is fair and legally compliant.

Secondly, to create a culture where line managers feel confident to empower their teams to get the most from flexible working in terms of benefit to the organisation and personal success.

Acas has some useful material on the former [PDF]. As to the latter, we have put together some advice below to help HR teams turn the dial on this important area.

Support & lead the organisation on clear goal-setting

Flexible working increases employee autonomy and autonomy is only successful when goals are clear and straightforward. Why? Because managers are less present to ensure employees are working towards those goals.

HR must work with senior leaders to ensure that, from the top to the bottom of the organisation, goals are simple to understand and make sense. This may involve influencing on goal-setting techniques, such as using balanced scorecards.

They must also help leaders cascade down goals so they are appropriate to the managerial level, help managers cascade them down to the team level and support managers so they can cascade them down to the individual level.

This needs to be an ongoing process: in the modern business environment goals can change quickly and employees need to be up-to-date as soon as possible so they can shift their focus where necessary.

HR should also help develop managers’ skillsets because managing by outcomes requires a more hands-off, coaching-centred approach to management.

Empower managers to manage by outcomes

Unfortunately, research suggests that employees co-located with managers are seen to be more productive than those working off-site, and consequently may get higher performance ratings and more promotions. This can create friction and reduce team cohesion.

The problem can be mitigated by focusing on achievements rather than process i.e. whether the employee has met goals, rather than how and where they have done it.

This is difficult and requires HR to work with line managers and the organisation on several interrelated steps: clarity of goals and KPIs, clear timeframes for when results will be measured, role modelling of outcome-focused behaviours from senior leaders and training in tools that facilitate management-by-outcome.

HR should also help develop managers’ skillsets because managing by outcomes requires a more hands-off, coaching-centred approach to management. Coaching allows managers to help employees develop greater autonomy and problem-solving skills, both important for success in flexible working environments.

Create policies with clear boundaries that allow managers discretion

Employees have unique requirements in the workplace based on their personal circumstances and background. One person’s flexible working arrangements will be totally unsuitable for someone else. Managers therefore need the discretion to be able to co-create a mutually-beneficial flexible working arrangement with each employee.

To do this, they need clarity on the boundaries of what the organisation deems acceptable, and employees also need to be aware of these boundaries so that the whole process is transparent and fair. It’s HR’s job to ensure there is congruence between what is communicated internally around flexible working, what it says in the flexible working policy and to what extent managers are able to empower employees to choose their working patterns.

Policies need to crystal clear on the boundaries of flexible working, answering questions like:

  • Are there core hours?
  • Must employees check in with managers or not before they change patterns?
  • Can employees work from anywhere or must it be a location they have previously registered?

Transparent boundaries not only help the manager and employee develop a pattern that works for the individual and the organisation, but also for the team: if everyone knows the rules, there’s less likely to be friction or accusations of preferential treatment.

Drive the employee experience for remote employees and ensure they can access tools

Organisations are focusing on the employee experience: quite rightly, as employee experience drives human performance, and human performance drives organisational productivity.

Flexible working increases employee autonomy and autonomy is only successful when goals are clear and straightforward.

A considerable part of the employee experience is driven by technology. In fact, technology is a hygiene factor in the workplace. When everything runs smoothly, employees can get on and do their jobs. When it doesn’t work, trust and motivation are impaired, particularly as employees are used to a seamless technological experience outside the workplace.

Obviously organisations have prioritised the smooth running of technology at central locations, such as offices and warehouses. But once employees start working flexibly, the situation becomes more complex, with potential for impaired motivation and trust - not to mention reduced productivity - if the technology falls down.

HR must own the employee experience of those working flexibly, including the technology requirements. HR should then work with IT to ensure files, systems and software are accessible where required, and that hardware is up-to-date and usable remotely.

Give managers tools and training to effectively manage dispersed teams

Leadership and management are easier with physical presence, from arranging Monday morning briefings to spontaneously motivating and inspiring people. When people start working flexibly, the cohesion that comes from co-location is reduced, making leadership and management more difficult.

Collaboration tools like Asana and Slack can help managers communicate with their team without relying on email. HR should also lead on investing in rich collaboration tools like video conferencing, which allows all team members to attend meetings even though they aren’t in the same location.

But it’s important to remember that just giving managers these tools isn’t enough: they may not be comfortable using them, and it’s as much about employee uptake as it is about managerial uptake. HR should therefore support them in gaining team buy-in for the technology, in terms of why it’s being implemented and how it’s going to add value.

It's very useful, for example, to have employee advocates or champions within teams to drive uptake and provide managers with an additional layer of support when these tools are still in the early stages of implementation