We see it time and time again. People get really, really excited about the potential of flexible work practices – and then fail to implement them effectively.
Many managers have jumped on board with the the concept of flexible work – in theory. They research it, learn about how it can deliver exceptional increases in staff engagement and productivity while simultaneously improving diversity and inclusion at work. Eventually, they draft a policy, launch it with great fanfare and declare “from this day forward we will be working flexibly across the organisation”.
And that’s it – box ticked.
The problem is, what follows is often chaotic, and a lot of the time that chaos is hidden in the shadows. Some managers may decree flexibility doesn’t apply to their teams,and feel it cannot achieved without major disruptions. This almost never the case, as some level of flexibility or ownership of schedules can always be offered. Others offer what they think is flexibility to everyone and anyone and promptly lose a portion of their teams to the home office for months at a time. Then there are those who embrace flexibility to the extreme – letting work bleed into their personal lives at the expense of their health and their families. None of this works.
So, what’s the best way to turn a flexible work policy into a practice that actually works?
There are some fantastic examples out there of organisations that have no flexibility policy, but are still able to work flexibly. Rather than rules and prescriptions, processes are set up through conversations between leaders and their staff about what works for both sides and what will deliver the best outcomes for individuals and the organisation.
These are the unicorns as they are underpinned by an incredible amount of reciprocal trust, transparency and communication between staff and their leadership at all levels.
For the rest of us, here are 4 steps that will help drive the successful implementation of flexible work practices:
1. Executive alignment
Changing the way people work is a cultural transformation, so it needs to be treated as one. Before you even consider drafting a policy on flexibility, you should take the time to really understand what flexibility would mean within the organisation and what it might look like. Before embarking on a change in policy, it is also essential that the executive team get behind it and understand why you are doing it. Without their role modelling, genuine belief in its benefits, and vocal support it is unlikely to succeed.
2. Policy/Guiding principles
For most organisations, especially larger, more traditional ones, a policy or set of guiding principles to support the changes is a good idea. Armed with the executive team’s vision of flexibility, drafting the policy or principles will be easier, as you ensure it is tailored to the specific needs of your organisation. This policy can give leadership and staff a set of guidelines to discuss opportunities for flexibility with individual staff.
(For how to make the perfect policies and procedures document, read our guide.)
This is where the change really happens and is the most critical to the success of your flex policy. It is unfair to expect that people who have worked the same way for 20 years will be able to change their behaviour overnight. People managers and middle management are at the biggest risk of pushing back against a new policy as it is daunting to move from having complete access to your team – to having a flexible workforce. Developing a good plan about how they will continue to operate effectively coupled with some robust and open conversations with staff will go a long way to ensuring a smooth transition.
With any organisational change, pockets of your organisation will struggle with the transition. Some may even openly resist – others might l fumble along and make some errors of judgement along the way. You will need to make sure to schedule regular check-ins to review, manage resistance and support those that need assistance making the shift. This will minimise any negative impact on individual and company performance as well as staff engagement.