Set up for flexible working success, not failure
Almost one third of working parents feel resentful about how their employer values – or does not value – their worklife balance1. Flexible workers do not have lower levels of resentment. They are still pulled every which way by the demands of work and of family. The impact on their wellbeing, and on their ability to be present parents, and on their relationship with their partners, is sharply and negatively felt.
Yet where flexibility works well, it contributes to employee wellbeing, happiness, engagement and productivity. But what does work well? People (mainly leaders, it has to be said) talk about their organisations having flexibility in their DNA, attributing it to the fact that “it is just the way we do things round here”. If it were that simple, the legal advice service at Working Families wouldn’t be regularly helping people whose manager has said no to a flex working request, or who has imposed an impossible change to an existing working pattern. Likewise managers wouldn’t be being driven to exasperation by staff making unrealistic flex requests.
So, what does work?
Well, first off, let’s remember what flexible working is: it’s quite simply a variation in where, when and how much work you do. That’s all we are talking about – whether any of those variables can be changed, to enable a better fit between responsibilities at work and outside work. Most commonly caring responsibilities for children or elders, but increasingly often for pre-retirement phasing, education, sport, volunteering or civic engagement.
So there is lesson #1 – it’s not just about mothers with young children, flexible working can help everyone achieve the life-fit they aspire to.
The law changed to enable parents of young children to request flexible working in 2002, and was finally brought up to date in 2014, when the right was extended to all employees. In the early days, many managers were very anxious about flex – did they have to say yes? Did saying no mean they were guilty of discrimination? The result was headaches all round, as flexible arrangements were agreed with little thought about what the role needed to deliver, or the impact of a change on other team members, internal or external clients.
Lesson #2 is – discuss and collaborate about the when and the where.
Where flex works best, the team agrees a shared protocol based on its specific business setting and its members’ understanding of and insight into constraints and possibilities, within which individual arrangements can be made, whether ad hoc or contractual. For the individual, this brings confidence that the team can support their working patterns, because everyone understands what each is there to deliver and how. And for the manager, it removes the burden of having to think through the detail of every request, before unilaterally approving or rejecting it.
How much flexibility? This is usually the biggest question. Particularly in more challenging professional services or city environments, where the client is king (or queen) and generous financial packages for the employee come with an expectation of unboundaried and long-hours commitment to the job.
So, lesson #3 is around job design, and is the manager’s responsibility – think, about what the role is there to deliver. What are the measurable, deliverable outputs and outcomes? Are these realistic? Can the work be done without damage to the employee’s physical or mental wellbeing? Once you can define “how much?”, it becomes simpler to be flexible around when and where, without exploiting employee goodwill and commitment.
Because there is nothing flexible, really, about being granted flexibility over when and where you manage what is actually an impossible workload.
1 Modern Families Index 2018, Working Families
Sarah Jackson is an Independent Speaker & Consultant
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