Today’s employees seek work-life balance, the opportunity to telecommute and flexible work schedules.
I’ve coached quite a few executives asking me how to allow for this flexibility in location and schedule, while continuing to promote accountability in their organizations. Many managers struggle to find a balance that allows employees the freedom to choose when and how to do their best work while also maintaining team cohesion and ensuring accountability. Some worry that if staff members aren’t sitting at their desks every day for a full eight hours, work won’t get done. Others fear that too much flexibility will create a workplace culture rife with missed deadlines.
Actually, I have regularly found the reverse to be true: Companies that fail to create a culture of flexibility, trust and accountability often struggle with retention and lower production due to frustrated employees.
So how do managers keep their offices running as well-oiled machines when the various parts may frequently not be in the same place at the same time? It hinges on clear metrics for success, ongoing communication and regular feedback on performance.
Clarity of Expectations
If you’re a good boss, your employees should already understand exactly what’s expected of them on both a large scale and on a day-to-day smaller scale. If you haven’t yet communicated these expectations both verbally and in writing in a way that’s proved effective, make sure you do so before implementing any sort of flex scheduling.
If your staff understands how they fit into both the macro and micro strategies for your business, this part should be easy — because the main point is that nothing changes. If Matt is working remotely once per week, or working noon to 8 p.m. twice per week instead of 8-5, he should be expected to produce the same amount of work at the same level of quality, if not higher, during these periods. It’s also best to set up a clear system; i.e. a particular day of the week or date of the month when an employee can work from home or utilize a flex schedule. Offering these permissions on an ad hoc basis can get confusing for leadership and employees.
If you hire someone with the expectation that flexibility will be a perk offered down the road, prepare them for this at the start of training. For example, “We use our email chat service for quick questions in the office, so please check it periodically. Though if you begin working remotely, we’ll expect you to be readily available via that medium as a primary form of communication.”
Flex scheduling or telecommuting should only be offered to employees who are already high performers. It’s much more difficult to fix problem staffers when they work remotely, and likely any ongoing issues will only be exacerbated by more freedom and less time with direct oversight. So be clear from the start on what accountability and flexibility look like, and explain how you hold employees accountable.
Expectations will likely remain the same on the macro level, but you may want to adjust daily communication strategies for those not in the office during traditional hours. For example, if you have an employee working remotely, require them to be more readily available via online chat or messaging services, or via their company cell phone. For an employee working a flex schedule, consider asking for a recap email at the end of each shift that outlines progress made while others were off the clock.
You also want to be clear upfront about instances when these privileges will be put on hold for the good of the business. For instance, all-staff meetings, company retreats or special events that you need the employee to attend may fall on set telecommute or flex-scheduling days.
As you implement a flex schedule, consider more regular check-ins in the beginning: For example, ask your employee to touch base with you every couple of hours the first few days they work from home, so they get comfortable handling business appointments when not in the office. Ask them ahead of time what they plan to work on during their time away, and confirm they completed it as planned.
The intention is not to continue these processes as regular practice, but to instead help transition your employees into their non-traditional work mode in a way that sets them up for success.
Feedback should be shared regularly, both in real time and quarterly. How is your employee performing during times out of the office? Is he or she easy to reach? Is he or she still meeting deadlines? Are they able to handle any issues that arise as effectively as when in the office?
These can be tough conversations that many managers avoid because they don’t know how to offer feedback, they don’t have time or they don’t want to hurt the employee’s feelings. Candor is key. Why? It builds trust. But keep in mind that feedback should always be provided in a productive, proactive and positive way. Constructive feedback is important: People cannot fix what they don’t know is wrong.
Connect these conversations back to the discussion of flexibility. Tell your employees that as they improve their skills, they’ll be able to work more independently. And if they know that your intention is to provide feedback to help them get to a higher level of flexibility, they will appreciate your input and comments. They will also feel more in control of what they can do to promote their ideal work-life balance.
Managers sometimes have a tendency to generalize feedback to soften the message, but this only leads to confusion for the employee. If staff aren’t aware of their strengths and areas for improvement, they won’t adjust and learn. And mistakes will continue, leading to a cycle of less accountability, less flexibility and more frustration.
Check in with your staff regularly. Openly reflect on how the balance between accountability and flexibility is going and talk about any adjustments necessary based on their performance.
Accountability is a foundation of success in business, and flexibility is the new norm for workplace culture. If you are clear about your expectations from the beginning, any changes you need to make will not be a surprise. They should understand that they are in control of how much flexibility they have earned — or not.