Given that attracting and retaining talent is increasingly challenging for many firms, getting your head around flexible working and what that means in practice could give your business more of an edge than dangling hefty bonuses in front of your best people.
Flexi-time could mean arriving at the office at 9.30am rather than 8.30am to fit in a session at the gym before work. Or it can mean basing yourself at home for quiet work, at a client’s office for collaboration, and at the office on days you have meetings. A longtime client called this the ‘Martini culture’ (anytime, anyplace, anywhere).
How do you know what people are doing?
In a conventional office, managers can see who is chatting in the kitchen, who is hustling on the phone and who is taking a long lunch. We get clues about who is adding the most value by being able to see people do their work.
Employees know they are being seen and adjust their behavior accordingly. We generally get the behavior we want because our staff know we’re watching them.
But when the staff are out of sight how will we know if they're working hard enough or that they're not abusing the system? Won't it just be chaos?
These are the wrong questions
These fears are driven by the sense that people can't be trusted. We don’t really believe people will do a good job unless they are being watched. But why do you do a good job? Is it because someone is watching you? Or is it because you care?
The trick to flexible working is to rethink your theories about employee motivation.
Shifting the focus from extrinsic to intrinsic
Extrinsic motivators are things like bonuses and gift cards as rewards. A comfortable office environment, good coffee and onsite parking are extrinsic. Doing a good job because your boss is watching you is an extrinsic motivator.
But intrinsic motivators include the reward of doing a job well, making a difference, growing and developing as a result of challenging work, feeling appreciated and respected.
Therefore, flexible working requires firms to shift away from extrinsic motivators to a culture that focuses on intrinsic motivators.
The most powerful of these is a compelling company purpose. It should get you out of bed on a dark, cold February morning. It should be client-centred.
If you’re not sure what your company purpose is you need to work that out before you implement new flexible working policies.
Each individual needs to feel connected with their own intrinsic motivators. Employees who know why their work matters to them do not need to be monitored as much as those who don’t know why they work other than the salary and the praise of their boss.
You can only help them work this out once you’re clear in your own mind.
Outcomes not inputs
Flexible working only works if we measure results and outputs rather than hours worked or hard work. And this is a far more valuable measure in any case.
What does it matter if someone pulled an 80 hour week if they had nothing to show for it at the end? Whereas, if someone worked 25 hours but won you your biggest new client yet what do you care that they spent the rest of the week tending their allotment?
Moving from inputs to outputs means every individual needs clarity about their job such as what they expected to deliver, what counts as ‘doing a good job’ and what makes a difference to the business.
When employees co-create their roles, deliverables and definitions of success, they are making a contract with you. They are saying “I get paid for delivering this. If I don’t I will be answerable for that. It’s the value I’m adding that matters not the hours I put in”. Again, this starts with you.
When flexible working goes wrong
Not everyone can be trusted. There are people out there who will try to take advantage of flexibility. So what do you do in these situations?
Not everyone you hire is a good egg. Some are bad apples. You’ll get these with or without flexible working. If someone isn’t interested in delivering outputs and results and just wants the freedom to watch Loose Women every day without consequences deal with this as you would any poor performer.
Sometimes the issue isn’t the person but the way the flexible working has been contracted. Does the individual feel connected with a greater purpose? Do they know what needs to be delivered? Is the job human-sized? Does it play to their strengths? Can it be done or are expectations unrealistic?
While it might feel reassuring to put in technology that monitors your remote staff’s screentime, or requires them to clock on and off, or track where they are during the day, greater control is going to completely undermine the value of flexible working. Keep temptation to control at bay.
When flexible working goes right
Bottom line, flexibility improves employee engagement and performance. Attracting and retaining the best talent should be a tempting prospect too.
Flexible working enables you to create a more diverse workforce and differentiate yourself from competitors. And it allows you to serve clients more flexibly too. Breaking away from the 9-5 makes you more responsive to clients outside office hours.
And finally, whether it’s because you want to go to the gym before you start work, sit in a café to sift through the P&L, or just indulge your secret vice and watch Loose Women while you eat lunch, you get to flex too.
About Blaire Palmer
Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author, podcaster and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is also a judge in the new Investing in People category of the 2019 Accounting Excellence Awards. You can talk to Blaire about her leadership coaching or find out more about her work at www.thatpeoplething.com