By Kathy Kacher, Career/Life Alliance Services
During the past decade, much of work/life research has been dedicated to identifying and measuring the bottom-line benefits of workplace flexibility to an organization and its employees. Unfortunately, far less attention has been paid to the challenges that managers face when integrating flexibility into their work groups.
A 2010 survey report, Alternative Workplace Strategies in the Current Economy: Results from New Ways of Working’s Benchmarking Study, cited executive buy-in and manager resistance as two of the top three barriers to wider implementation of workplace flexibility. Similarly, the 2011 WorldatWork Survey on Workplace Flexibility illustrates the importance of engaging managers in the culture change necessary to building a flexible workplace, finding that only 12 percent of organizations that are developing flexibility initiatives provide their managers with training and resources.
During a recent focus group with managers conducted by Boston College Center for Work & Family, Career/Life Alliance and Life Meets Work, managers at organizations with workplace flexibility programs said they did not have the understanding, tools or training needed to lead flexible work teams successfully. Also, they said that the focus group was the only time they had been asked how well they were doing in the flexible work environment.
Given that managers hold the key to effective, full-scale implementation of flexibility but that most are ill-prepared or unable to manage in a way that supports a flexible culture, it is essential to enhance their knowledge, provide them with tools and develop their skills through specific workplace flexibility training.
Introducing managers to the business case for workplace flexibility can increase their understanding of and appreciation for the benefits that flexibility brings to their organizations. They learn that by increasing autonomy and commitment, flexibility enables employees to become more innovative in their jobs and able to identify problems better—and to go the extra mile in solving them. As a result, managers are positioned better to meet their business objectives.
One method of enhancing managers’ knowledge is to communicate fully the challenges employees are experiencing—including metrics about turnover, absenteeism and engagement. Using corporate data and anecdotal evidence can show how these issues impact the organization’s bottom line.
The next step is to have managers share stories illustrating their teams' challenges, followed by how these challenges impact the effectiveness of their departments. Managers can understand workplace flexibility as a business strategy better when they are provided with external case studies as well as examples of how flexibility is working throughout their organizations.
Tools and Training
Proper tools and training can ensure that managers have the tools they need to succeed in a flexible workplace. Among the issues that should be addressed are the following:
• Performance management. Organizations can assist managers in reviewing performance as part of their daily responsibilities, especially in a flexible work environment. One example of ongoing performance management is a daily check-in call, e-mail or other outreach to confirm that employees have what they need to meet their objectives.
• Communication. Flexible teams need to determine how and when to communicate using tools such as instant messaging, text messaging, Skype and Twitter. But managers should be mindful that the digital word can be misinterpreted easily from afar. It is important to provide training to ensure that they keep their written communication clear of ambiguity that can cause confusion or lead to offense.
Creating a communication strategy to use when an urgent matter arises is an additional process that must be developed. Managers should work with their employees to identify one communication tool that will work for all members, and outline the response time expected when a critical issue arises.
• Virtual meetings. Flexible work teams must determine in advance when to hold meetings and how to conduct them. Technology provides a variety of choices—including Webex, GoToMeeting and Skype—for sharing presentations. To engage team members, managers should create a feeling of meeting in the same room by making introductions and ensuring that people understand why they are attending the meeting. This approach improves the discussion and the decision-making.
• Team culture. Maintaining team spirit in a flexible work environment can be a challenge for managers. They need ideas on how to maintain the social aspect of their work group. Leadership training can provide managers with ideas on how to create time for the team to learn about each other’s personal lives. For example, sharing pictures of home offices, family and friends can be a great way for teams to feel connected. Other ideas include remembering birthdays, special occasions and recent successes and announcing them during team meetings.
Flexibility is an elevated form of teamwork, dependent on managers who have the skills to define expectations, delegate and adapt to different work styles. Employers need to establish resources, such as the tools and training outlined above, so they can help managers create a flexible culture inside their work groups and help companies leverage workplace flexibility as a business strategy.
Kathy Kacher is president of Career/Life Alliance Services Inc. in Minneapolis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Experts: Telework Still a Hard Sell for Managers, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, November 2011
Experts: Flexible Workplaces Should Rely on Social Media, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, November 2011
SHRM Online Benefits DisciplineSHRM Online Workplace Flexibility Resource Page