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Making flex work: Support managers and teams

Now that you've defined what flexible working means for your organisation and agreed your flexible working principles, it's time to prepare your managers to lead flexible teams and support your people to work flexibly.

Step 3: Prepare your managers to lead flexible teams

Front-line managers will be the people applying the flexible working principles on a day-to-day basis, and it's important to provide them with the support they need to successfully lead a flexible team. There's a long list of steps you can take to prepare your managers. Start with these three practical activities for immediate impact.

  1. Clearly articulate the manager's decision rights: Be up front with your managers about what decisions they can and cannot make. Can they approve any flexible working arrangement, as long as it's in line with the flex working principles? Are there decisions (e.g., approving long-term leave) that need to be escalated to HR or a more senior leader? Ensuring managers are clear about their decision authority will help them have smoother, more productive conversations with their teams about flexible working arrangements.

  2. Host question and answer sessions: When it comes to making flex work, managers will have questions - lots of them. It's important to host forums where managers feel safe to ask their questions before you implement flex broadly. (NOTE: If circumstances such as COVID mean that flex got rolled out quickly and is already happening, it's never too late to host a Q&A session.) During Q&A sessions, I've received everything from big concerns - "What if I suspect my person is slacking off at home?" - to tactical challenges - "What if someone's working from home, but forgot to forward their desk phone to their mobile?" Use these sessions to provide consistent messaging, reinforce your flexible working principles, and assure your managers that you're there to support them through the change. Bonus points for capturing the questions and answers and publishing them on an internal site for future reference.

  3. Lead from the front: Role model the behaviour you're looking for from your managers. Approve all flex requests that are in line with your principles. Work flexibly yourself. Talk about flexible working in your leadership meetings. People listen to what we say, but they give the most weight to what we do. Make sure your actions match your message.

One more note about supporting your managers. Two of the most common issues that comes up are: 1) how to handle requests to work flexibly from someone who is underperforming, and 2) what to do if you think someone who is already working flexibly isn't performing. The most important thing in these situations is to help your manager understand the difference between a "flexible working issue" and a "performance issue." The majority of the time, when managers have concerns about letting someone work flexibly, I find that a performance issue is the root cause. The person produces poor quality deliverables, misses deadlines, or has done something else that has eroded the manager's confidence in their performance. When this happens, the manager should work with their leader and HR to address the underlying performance issue. Blaming it on flexible working will not fix the problem long term.

Step 4: Support your people to work flexibly

As people start to put flexible working into practice, they'll have lots of questions (What if I don't want to give work colleagues my personal mobile number?), a few concerns (Will my manager start to give the good projects to people who are in the office?), and the occasional mishap (I'm working from home, but the internet's gone out and I can't access my email!). How do you support them through this change?

  1. Set up the right infrastructure: While forced remote working during COVID has caused many companies to aggressively improve their flexible working infrastructure, there are still a number of considerations for organisations to address as they plan for long-term flex. How do your employees communicate? Do you have a good online conferencing platform? How do they collaborate on shared documents? Will you provide mobile phones? Will you reimburse internet expenses? Are there Work, Health, and Safety regulations that require you to ensure safe home offices? Talk to your technology, HR, and risk teams to ensure you've considered the various infrastructure requirements.

  2. Provide some guidelines: I know I said to avoid a long list of rules, but most people like a degree of structure, and a few guidelines never hurt. Some sample guidelines might include:

    1. Always let your manager know where and when you'll be working. It's not ok to just not show up at the office or not be online for long periods of time.

    2. We don't expect people to answer calls or emails outside their standard work hours. Just because your manager is working flexibly and sending emails at 10 pm doesn't mean you need to be online late at night.

    3. Consider the impact of your flexible working on your team. For example, if you want to work different hours, think about whether you have deliverables that others need at a specific time to be able to do their job.

  3. Celebrate flex: As more people work flexibly, find opportunities to celebrate flexible working. Highlight teams that are working flexibly and producing great results. Share your own flexible working story. Provide statistics about the number of people who work flexibly. Being a visible champion of flexible working will normalise the behaviour among staff.

Tip: These tips and tricks will get you started, but it's important to consider your organisation's unique needs. Develop a 6-9 month plan for how you can best support your managers and staff in taking up flexible working.

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