Lessons learned from 20 years of managing flexible workers
I have managed flexible teams for decades, and lobbied Government continually on the benefits of greater flexible working for all.
As hybrid working, and greater flexibility in general, looks set to stay after the pandemic, Sarah shares her personal experiences of what she got right, and where she sometimes went wrong when managing flexible workers.
Hybrid v flexible
I have managed flexible workers on a reason-neutral, ‘yes-as-default’ basis for over 20 years. And I am not unusual in this. From Lloyds TSB’s ‘Work Options’ in 1999, to more recent re-packaging of flex such as Barclays’ ‘dynamic working’ and KPMG’s ‘intelligent working’, managers in countless organisations, large and small, have become very comfortable with flexible working as a day-to-day norm for everyone.
When managerial brows furrow at the prospect of hybrid working, it’s worth remembering that hybrid is in many ways how many organisations and teams have been working for years, with great success. We just called it being flexible. By which we mean that our people have autonomy over when and where they work. They take responsibility for making their own flexibility work for the team, laterally, with colleagues, and vertically, with managers and reports; and to ensure that external customers, clients or other stakeholders experience no difference in standards.
But I have some sympathy for managers who view the prospect of flexibility around where their people work becoming the default for their workplace with apprehension. And who grit their teeth, every time someone like me cheerfully claims that managing flex just takes a bit of common sense and away you go. Because in truth, while it is essentially common sense, it is nevertheless a mistake to think that managing a flexible team is simple. Or rather, it is simple, but it requires a bit of investment upfront in thought and preparation.
Good job design, based on clarity of purpose and clear objectives, and excellent communication, within and between teams are the bedrock for success.
But beyond those, there are four other key lessons I learned – through plenty of mistakes and sometimes bitter experience – in my first forays into flexible management.
- Establish your non-negotiables
The first and most important is to do your preparation, to get on the front foot and stay there.
I used to ask myself why, years into running a flexible team, I was still consistently taken by surprise when someone came to me with a flex request. It never felt like the right time. I was going to have to think through whether what they wanted to do was practical. And I was busy. It felt like a time-consuming distraction.
Two rookie mistakes were keeping me on the back foot. I hadn’t taken the time to establish the non-negotiables for my team and for its members. For example, service opening hours, or the requirement to spend occasional nights away from home. And I had not thought through at a macro level what was, and was not, likely to work for that team, or in that role. I was always starting from a blank sheet of paper, wondering how to respond.
- You don’t need all the answers yourself
It’s not all down to you to work out the answer.
An early example, from which came much learning. A team member made what seemed like a well-reasoned request to work full-time from home. He was a good performer, so I agreed.
The result? Managerial misery twice over. First of all, telling the rest of the team about the new arrangement – and then discovering the objections and problems that neither I nor the employee concerned had thought about. And as a result, sweating over the new schedules.
I learned the first thing to ask is, what will the impact be on your colleagues? Have you talked to the rest of your team? I had discovered the hard way that requests which come as solutions, save much managerial misery. And also, that it is powerfully effective to delegate to the team the collective responsibility for ensuring the function is covered, that communication is in place and that nothing slips through the net when colleagues work offsite or vary their hours.
- Delegate flex
Which indeed is the third lesson. Delegate flex as far down into the team as you can. Communicate the non-negotiables, and set the team to work out their own flexible working protocols around availability and contactability.
This is especially important around communication and collaboration, within and between teams. There used to be a sense that, when someone was working at home, it was the equivalent of having a do not disturb notice on their door, however inconvenient that was for everyone else. The past year of remote working should have gone a long way to dismantling that presumption. But for hybrid to succeed, your team needs to normalise remote working; to establish that, whether a colleague is sitting at the next desk or at their kitchen table many miles away, they are available and accessible in the same way during their working hours.
Essentially, it’s up to the team to make flex work. Leaving you to concentrate on what you need them to do, by when and to what standard. Which leads to the fourth lesson. Always have a trial period and keep how things are working under review.
- Use trial periods and say no if things aren’t working
The final lesson is therefore, to remember that you can say no, upfront or after a review period. Once I had learned to do my preparation, I found it much easier to say no, or, far more often, to suggest a compromise pattern. So many times in the early days of flex I had felt that, as a kind manager, empathetic to employees’ lives outside work, I had to say yes. But colleagues could always tell when I was reluctant, and as the suboptimal flex continued, performance and relationships were affected. So I learned to concentrate on setting clear work objectives and deliverables, and clear parameters and protocols, that I and my team felt confidence in.
Hybrid working will bring challenges of the unfamiliar, of managers feeling loss of control. But take time now to get on the front foot and you will keep control. You and your team will understand the boundaries and what’s possible and, together, you will make a success of hybrid working.
Sarah Jackson OBE is a leading expert on work-life issues in the UK. She led the work-life charity Working Families for 24 years and has been instrumental in shaping family-friendly policy, legislation and public attitudes for over two decades. She is chair of Parents and Carers in Performing Arts and a visiting Professor at Cranfield University