Silly you, Yahoo – flexible working’s one of the biggest assets you’ve got

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Yahoo’s decision to ban all ‘remote’ working drew its fair share of critics recently, who were quick to point out the benefits of a flexible workforce. But the reason Yahoo hit a raw nerve is because many employees want - and genuinely need - more control over how, where and when they work.

Flexible working has long been a political and social issue, such as the changing demographics of an aging workforce, the harsh reality of recession-hit pay cuts and the increase in fathers opting for co-parenting. Flexibility is not just a ‘nice to have’ - the benefits of a flexible workforce directly influences the bottom line, with employees who feel they have a positive work-life balance also reporting being more engaged according to the CIPD - yet an estimated 30% of UK businesses have yet to ‘go flexible’.

The cultural acceptance of flexiworking varies massively across organisations and across sectors. Anyone who remembers the scathing public response to the government’s announcement of flexiworking during the Olympics for Whitehall’s employees will know that ‘flexible’ can be seen as a deleterious term for not being quite as committed, hardworking or passionate as the ‘real’ workers out there who are busy clocking up 50 hour weeks in the office.

The challenge now for organisations is working out what ‘flexible’ means to them as a business and defining a culture that makes ‘flexible’ synonymous with high-performing employees who consistently who deliver what is expected of them, regardless of how, when, where and why they work.

Most cultural change is spearheaded by serious myth busting; with the biggest myth of all being that flexibility is an unfair system: those who work less time in the office contribute less and are somehow ‘getting away’ with it. It’s not uncommon to hear of companies who use technology to check if home-based employees are logged on and working. Whilst these systems and other processes may provide the security blanket of knowing someone is available, they also reduce the relationship between employer and employees to that of parent and child. 

The reality is that as more and more companies invest in flexible working, managers will be tasked with leading diverse teams of different working styles. A parent-child culture is exhausting for managers who waste time and energy on continuous checking and monitoring, and also harms creativity and productivity.

Try trust

There is a more adult way of defining what flexibility stands for and ensuring that employers and all employees subscribe to it. It’s called trust - the cornerstone of a culture that is committed to building high levels of engagement and performance. 

Trust is a two-way street, where being trusting is just as important as being trusted. The key to a successful, flexible workforce is demonstrating that managers and leaders are trusting of their employees: 

  • trusted to work the hours they need to deliver what is expected
  • trusted to show commitment and accountability to their teams, and
  • trusted to be as open as possible about when problems crop up and the ability to deliver may be compromised 

Most leaders would vigorously nod their heads if asked if trust is important in their culture, but unpicking how to build and sustain it remains more of an enigma, given how little support and practical structure is available for leaders and managers. 

For example, it is only by actively investing time in relationships with their team members that managers start to build trust with them. The greater the quality and strength of their relationship with their line manager, the more engaged employees are likely to be. On the engagement scale, it is one of the highest predictors of performance. 

Skilled managers-as-engagers will work hard to unlock the individual drivers of engagement for each member of their team and use this to scope out an engagement plan for each of them – recognising what drives them - be it flexibility around home life or flexibility around career development.

Unfortunately, this level of deep, authentic dialogue often doesn’t get the time and attention it deserves in cultures brimming with transactional discussions. In high-performing cultures, managers are equipped with the skills and support to have these types of coaching conversations and to building this insight into a targeted engagement plan for their reports. Stuart Fletcher, during his tenure as CEO for Diageo International, recognised this need and devoted 10% of his working time to coaching. His dedication to developing others and, crucially, role-modelling this behaviour for other leaders and managers is one key reason Stuart believes Diageo experienced double digit growth across its international business. 

All of this requires honesty – in an adult-to-adult culture, managers need to take an inclusive approach with their teams, opening up conversations to explain what is happening with different team members and how everyone feels about the team pulling together across different work patterns. For example, whilst flexible working is a much-wanted or much-needed option for many employees, making the transition from full-time to part-time for example can be difficult for them and for their peers who have to adjust to a new way of working. 

Unlocking passion and dedication from employees is all about the employee being in the right culture for them – one that enables them to get to where they want to go, both professionally and personally. For many, the option to work flexibly will enable them to fulfil both of these desires. The future employers of choice will be those that do more than pay lip-service to working flexibly and instead build a culture of high trust that means employees are free to work to the best of their situation and abilities.

No system is perfect and the multitude of flexible working options, married with the traditional office-based-40-hour workers, means new challenges when it comes to managers leading their teams. Managers need to be consistent in how they both raise issues with team members and in how they deal with them. Above all, people need to see a watertight alignment between the action and behaviour of their manager.

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