As anyone who has tried to make a change can tell you, launching a change is easy - making it stick is hard. How do you ensure that flexible working doesn't become another fad or buzz word that slowly fades away? The last two steps in this six-step process will help your organisation adopt flex as "just the way we work".
Step 5: Tweak your culture
I often advise clients to identify their current culture by imaging their office is a reality TV show. When the cameras come in and spend time filming your office, what will they see? What will they hear? Consider whether the way people behave is conducive to flexible working.
Some red flags to watch out for:
Micro-insults: These are the little things people say, without harmful intent and often without thinking, that can have a big impact on the people around them. When someone leaves at 5, does a colleague quip, "Working a half day, huh?" Do people use air quotes when they say someone is "working from home"? These seemingly small actions send a large signal about what is and is not acceptable in your office culture. Leaders must be proactive in changing their own behaviours and calling out others who use micro-insults.
Exclusive routines: Does the team go out for lunch every Friday, despite the fact that Wednesday is the only day everyone is in the office? Do people regularly forget to put dial-in details in meeting invitations? Changing culture requires a change to regular routines. People need to form new habits that automatically include team members working flexibly. That could include alternating meeting times to include people who work different hours or swapping the day you hold a team meeting so that everyone has a chance to attend at least once a month. Spend time working with your teams to determine which routines need to change, and how to make them more inclusive.
Guilt: When companies first introduce flexible working, it's not unusual to hear people who work flexibly admit that they feel guilty. They feel like they need to sneak out if they're leaving earlier than others. They feel the need to apologise for working from home. They loudly mention that the reason they came in later is because they had late calls the night before. These signs of "flex guilt" are clear indicators that flexible working has not become the norm. Leaders can help reduce this guilt by adopting a few new habits. Examples include modeling flexible working and leaving loudly - a practice where you let your team know when you're leaving and why, to demonstrate that it's ok to utilise flex for any reason.
Step 6: Embed the change
Making new behaviours the norm takes time. Many organisations take their foot off the gas long before change is embedded. When it comes to flex, holding a big launch with town halls and emails isn't enough.
To make flexible working stick, consider three practical tips to embed the change.
Create a 9-12 month plan: Every 3-4 weeks, find a new way to reinforce the messaging around flexible working. You can send communications, run training, or do something fun, like holding a photo competition where people share pictures of themselves working flexibly. Figure out what works for your organisation, then build a series of regular touch points that keep flexible working front of mind.
Weave flex through everything: Every time a leader speaks, they should find a way to mention flexible working. Update your onboarding training to highlight flex. Add wording to your job advertisements letting candidates know you welcome conversations about making the job flexible. Review every touch point with your people, consider every step of the employee lifecycle, and look for every opportunity to make flex a standard part of the conversation.
Don't get lost in the noise: Most organisations have multiple change campaigns running at once. Ensure that flexible working stays at the top of the agenda, no matter how many shiny new toys get rolled out. As noise increases, look for new ways to get cut through, and keep reminding people that flex is here to stay.
Making flexible working work requires buy-in from leaders, commitment from managers, trust in your people, and change from everyone. Like any good change, it requires a solid plan and hard work, but delivers immeasurable benefits to both the organisation and its people.