Why trust and communication are the keys to successful flexible working
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Flexible working can bring a vastly improved balance to your work and personal life, and has been a game changer for many parents, carers and those seeking focus away from a noisy office.
But it isn’t always plain sailing. There can be practical difficulties, a breakdown in trust, and its success can be undermined by suspicious managers anxious about employees working out of sight.
To find out how these issues can be resolved, we put questions to Emma Stewart, CEO and co-founder of Timewise flexible working consultancy, which works with businesses, thought leaders, policy makers and social reformers.
Emma has contributed to numerous government task-forces, reports and initiatives, focusing on how to encourage more people who need to work flexibly into the workplace, shape the labour markets of the future and raise family living standards.
Q 1 Are there regular instances where an employee has exercised their right to ask for flexible working only to have it turned down?
Whilst flexible working is far more the norm, there are unfortunately still employers who refuse requests. Of course, it’s worth highlighting that it’s simply not possible for everyone to do it.
It all depends on the industry and type of flexible working requested – for example, a construction worker, haulage driver, school teacher or a nurse can’t normally do their job from home.
It’s also increasingly difficult to tell just how frequently these requests are being turned down. Many people who want to ask their boss or line manager about the possibility of flexible working now do so in an informal chat, rather than in a formal setting. If handled well, this can often avoid the need for a formal flexible working request.
Q 2 If you, as an employee, have a request for flexible working rejected, do you have a realistic alternative?
There can be a way forward, for both you as an employee and your manager, and it usually turns on finding a compromise.
As a rule, the onus will be on you to spell out very clearly what flexibility you want or need – and you’ll need to then put forward an effective business case that shows how you’ll make it work.
What’s very important is to lead on the ‘how’ you will make it work - not the ‘why’ you’re asking for flexible working.
For example, if you’re a nurse, you could ask for greater notice of shift patterns in order to be able to better plan ahead your daily routine to meet the everyday demands of your children or home life.
Or you may request to work from home several days a week to focus on report writing, and highlight to your employer how much more efficient you’ll be.
Q 3 When you’re looking for a new job (whether an internal promotion or at a new company) is there a ‘right time’ to bring up the possibility of flexible working?
Happily, we’re seeing more employers being open to the conversation at the point of hire, and saying so in the job description itself. However, still only 15% of job vacancies reference the option for flexible working - which is very low.
And our research shows that nine out of 10 people want some sort of flexibility in their work – so it’s still a big gap between people wanting it and employers proactively offering it upfront.
As for whether to mention it in a job interview scenario, it’s really about trying to pick the best moment – do you drop it into casual conversation in the lift on the way to the interview, midway through your chat, right at the end, or in a follow-up email?
It’s almost like a game of chicken – who’s going to go first and bring it up, and when?!
However, whenever you seek to join a potential new employer, it’ll be worth doing your research to find out in advance what their stance is on flexible working.
It may well simply be the case that – as a company - they’re very comfortable and open to it, it’s just that they haven’t yet thought to publicise this fact as a way to recruit staff.
In most cases, we find that it’s still down to the employee, rather than the manager, to raise the issue.
And when it comes to reviewing flexible working on your current role, our research shows that only one in five managers have proactively asked whether it’s working or needed in performance reviews.
Only when conversations relate to a particular related circumstance – for example, a planned return from maternity leave – does its likelihood of being mentioned rise considerably, to 50 per cent.
Q 4 Do some employees ever make a switch to flexible working that they think is a success, but that their boss deems a failure?
This can happen, unfortunately – and it’s usually because there hasn’t been enough thought put into it by either the manager, the employee, or both.
Quite often, it can be down to an issue of mistrust and presenteeism: that there is a perception by managers that the work simply isn’t being done if it’s not being seen to be done.
But this begs the question: if an employee can work down a corridor out of sight of managers and still do their work just fine, why are they not allowed to be able to do it at home? And to deliver just as efficiently if not more so than in the office?
We simply need to challenge the mindset that assumes remote workers work less hard.
And the evidence is clear. It shows that the output of employees working flexibly either matches their previous quality (and quantity) or is better.
So to avoid a breakdown of trust, talk to your manager about their expectations and agree regular check-ins to reassure them that the work is getting done.
Q 5 Can ‘overworking’ become a problem for remote workers because being at home makes it hard to switch off?
It really can – technology means work can be 24/7 when you’re at home, and there will be some people who find they do more work than ever before.
To this end, you need a framework and structure which allows you to find a balance and to prevent you from working too much.
This is why it’s very important for both managers and employees to set boundaries.
For example, you can introduce rules which cover the hours you won’t be on your laptop or make it clear which times you won’t be checking your emails – essentially, a key period when you’re unavailable. This will enable you to have predictable time off, as well as time at work.
Alternatively, you can block out time in your calendar for non-work issues e.g. surrounding childcare or looking after a relative. And the more leaders do this, the more employees will feel the culture exists for them to be more transparent too. Ultimately, this can then help everyone in a team know who is working when, and adapt to fit.
Q 6 What do workers find to be the most difficult aspect of flexible working?
Our experience shows their concerns almost always revolve around two key issues: trust and communication.
And as a general way to address these topics, we argue strongly that managers today need to stop looking at flexible working as a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, they need to come up with different sets of solutions for people in different types of jobs and who are in different types of personal situations.
With so many changing circumstances across all workplaces, it’s vital employers proactively look at how we design jobs to suit all forms of flexible working. And in doing so, people will be able to work in a way that both maximises their performance and balances work with life.