Why Flexible Working is a Leadership issue, not a Women’s issue

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Are you leading the way for flexible working?

Our job as leaders is to optimise the performance of individuals and the business. Flexible working (part-time, flexible hours, virtual working, job shares etc.) is a critical way to help deliver on that.

Why? The reason is it is a powerful recruitment and retention tool. It drives greater resilience and productivity in teams and is a proven stimulus for engagement.
Benefits of flexible working for leaders and organisations include:

  • It’s a powerful way of attracting top talent and of being an employer of choice
  • It gives employees an increased work life balance and greater opportunity to integrate their jobs with their lifestyle
  • Improvements in work life balance lead to boosts in overall health and wellbeing
  • It has a positive impact on morale, motivation and productivity
  • It energises people
  • It enables employees to manage their stress more effectively
  • It builds trust and respect and more positive working relationships

Yet managers can be afraid to have honest conversations with their people about what will work for them and the organisation.

This is what’s making managers uncomfortable about flexible working

If you are a manager and feel uncomfortable about flexible working within your organisation have you asked yourself:

  • Am I using old or even second-hand stories about what didn’t work to confirm my prejudices about flexible working?
  • What do I need to be confident enough to try more flexible working? Is this about me or them?
  • Do I raise the bar for people working flexibly and is this fair?
  • Do I trust the people who work for me? Why not?
  • How do I role model the value of working flexibly to my team? Or not?
  • How am I really managing the performance and contribution in my team? How much does someone’s presence and ‘full-timeness’ feature? Why should this be important?
Can we guess why managers don’t embrace flexible working?

Given there are so many benefits to the performance of the business and its people, what is holding leaders and managers back from supporting flexible working in their organisation?

Common fears include:

  • The floodgates will open if I let one person do it
  • Clients will hate it and won’t get their needs met
  • If I can’t see them they are not really working
  • We’ll see a decline in productivity and results
  • It creates work for me
  • If the arrangement doesn’t work I’m stuck with it
  • I won’t be able to monitor performance
  • It will have a harmful impact on the quality of work being produced
  • Requests for flexible working are really just for those not wanting to work hard

Although the points above are rarely true (including that clients hate it) it is understandable that a new way of working can make managers apprehensive. So, for those managers who want to use flexible working as a powerful tool but are nervous about doing so, here is how to set you and your team up for success.

How do you make flexible working work?

It’s vital that leaders address those assumptions and limiting beliefs that create barriers to a flexible working culture. Start with the premise that EVERYONE has the right to apply to work flexibly.

I know that sounds scary but it actually takes the risk out of the decision-making for you. Because people are not entitled to work flexibly, they are simply entitled to a fair and through review of their request. And you as their manager need to undertake that fair and thorough review.

Focus on the work, not the reason

Keep your business hat on and consider if it will have at worst a neutral effect on the business. The reason they want flexible working is not at issue and this should be made clear. It stops them putting their effort into making a case for being sufficiently deserving and instead into thinking about how the work will be done and how it will deliver business benefit.

And focussing on the work not the reason prevents you as the manager bringing your value judgments to bear.

You don’t want or need to be spending your time on juggling whether Jane’s two year old is more important than John’s mother with Alzheimer’s or Ray who wants to coach football Wednesday afternoons or Lee who plays in a jazz band. Click To Tweet

It is not your job as a manager to determine how people live their lives, but to engage and get the most from your talented, committed people.

Figure it out together and keep talking

It’s also important that those requesting to work flexibly recognise their role in figuring it out from a business and logistical perspective. It’s not all your burden as a leader, and you should both keep talking about the work. Again, don’t focus on the why. Instead focus on the how.

Make flexible working for everyone

This approach will also open up flexible working to men and women of all ages and at all stages in their careers which is vital to ensure flexible working is not seen as exclusive to certain groups (e.g. women with children).

Provided regular conversations are happening, where the individual recognises their role in making it work, and there is a clear business benefit, ask yourself why this should be limited to one or two members of your team.

Instead view flexible working as a business-based problem-solving tool to get your best people doing their best work.

This is why the floodgates don’t open

Some leaders may feel concerned that if they begin to offer flexible working options to their team, they will be deluged with requests and this will become unmanageable. There are a number of reasons why this is seldom the case. Some people don’t want to work flexibly, others (sadly) are concerned about the impact on their careers and others can’t afford the financial impact working part-time for example exacts.

Trial and error

Give flexible working a trial period but be clear about expectations, don’t raise the bar for flexible workers. Have regular conversations in that time and discuss any mutual concerns, talking about how the management of clients, colleagues, deadlines, etc. is going. Get the individual to talk it through with their teams and colleagues to address their issues.

Be prepared to have conversations about your concerns at the front end, if someone is not planful and not a good communicator when they are in the office now, then they need to give you confidence as their manager how that will play out if they are remote.

This approach will make you a better leader

Making flexible working work in your team and your organisation will deliver a real source of competitive advantage and make you not only an attractive employer and brand, but a leader who talented people want to work for. What leader wouldn’t want to make that happen? So share this with your manager.

To gain that competitive advantage leaders need to have the courage to abandon old styles of working and be open to approaches that are in line with the modern business world and the talent that inhabits it. There is so much to gain, for yourself as a leader and for your organisation’s success.

More top tips

I recently hosted a podcast with three high performing senior female leaders who have been successfully working flexibly for a number of years. Check it out to hear their advice and learnings for making flexible working work for you and your team.

You might be interested in my podcast episode with Natalie Worpole, Kerry Simmons and Uzma Hamid-Dizieron on how flexible working gives them the careers and the lives they want. Click here to listen.

As always thanks for reading this and sharing it. Feel free to read more on my blog page.

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