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Put that way, flexible working is nonsense

Opinion Written by John Berry on 14th August 2018. Revised 14th September 2018. Reading time: 4 minutes

Woman Hands cristian-newman-141875-unsplashWhy would any manager grant his or her workforce flexibility in when and where they worked? Just think about it. The manager would not be sure when the employee is going to be available to do work. And they’d not be sure whether the employee is working on site, from home or from Café Nero. Put that way, flexible working is nonsense.

But life is an exchange. Managers consider granting flexible working because they want something in return.

Exchange in action

It might be that the manager wants to make their firm highly attractive to a small pool of talent. It might be that they want extraordinary commitment, requiring extraordinary response to business events – like flying abroad at a few hours’ notice. Or it might just be that the firm does not want the expense of business premises and flexible working is one way of asking the employee to fund where they work.

Whatever the manager’s reason, flexibility is of huge benefit to the employee. And of huge benefit to the firm too.

But is flexibility real?

Flexi-time’s really rigid

The problem over whole scale introduction of flexible working lies in the minds of the current cadre of managers. As Gen X, many of them grew up under a hard regime. They clocked in and out. And clocking in after the official start was a disciplinary offence. The only inkling of ‘flexible’ for Gen X was flexi-time. Flexi-time is, in reality, just a way of adjusting the actual time worked in any month. There’s nothing flexible about flexi-time. It’s rigid.

True flexible working is underpinned by trust.

For trust, the manager must be willing to rely on the future actions of the employee. More importantly, the manager, in trusting, elects to abandon control over the employee’s actions. As a consequence, the manager can never be sure of the outcome of this trust; he or she can only allow the employee’s actions to emerge and evaluate them when they do. And because the manager must first trust, then wait, the uncertainty about the employee’s performance places the firm at risk.

In that last sentence, we can see why many managers have a problem with flexibility.

For trust

For trust, managers need a good relationship with their employees. Humans have a natural disposition to trust. And we’re wired to trust, and to judge trustworthiness in others. But experience drives us to suspect others and judge the threats they pose.

We’ve said many times that management is a ‘contact sport’. To build relationships, managers must get close up to their employees. Flexi-time is the flexible answer when relationships are distant and trust is low – the manager governs by rigid rules. Flexible working is possible when relationships are close and trust is high.

Flexible working costs the firm – when compared to a cold regime where managers manage by decree. Managers must invest time in structuring work to accommodate flexible working. And they must get close enough to their employees to quickly judge if all’s not well.

Of course, many firms (and indeed local and central government departments) reduce costs by only funding desks and office space for half the workforce at any one time. They are asking employees to work from home. Those workers must log in and account for their time – it’s a normal or flexi-time regime by another name. Of course, it suits many employees because they avoid the need to commute, but many take risks with house insurance, covenants on house deeds and mortgage agreement conditions. The unconsidered risk to those workers imbalances the exchange.

But, back to trust.

From presence to outcomes

For flexible working, managers must move from a belief that if they can see someone, or see their login, they must be working. With such belief, the manager hopes that performance comes from presence. For flexible working, the manager must shift their focus to outcomes. If outcomes are all that matter, surely, correspondingly, it does not matter when or where the employee works – and when and where they are present. It only matters that the outcomes are realised.

So, what’s it to be? Trust and outcomes or hope and presence?

Of course, trust is not open-ended. The now-famous Russian proverb ‘Doveryai, no proveryai’ – ‘trust but verify’ - applies. Trust is two-way and managers must be prepared to set meaningful outcome-centered objectives and appraise these frequently. If verification suggests poor performance and outcomes, the manager needs to take action that corrects the problem while sustaining the trust. That takes skill and energy.

So back to the question. Why would a manager want to grant flexible working to employees?

The business case

The answer is that the manager wants something in return, something that will solve what otherwise would be a problem, something that he or she can’t get any other way.

In any such answer, there’s a business case. That business case opens by asking what the manager wants to achieve. If, for example, it’s increasing the available talent pool, such a goal, if achieved, has a financial benefit. In that case, the manager could increase salaries to make the (rigid) firm more attractive, or he or she could offer flexibility as a benefit. So, the extra management time needed to make flexible working work is balanced against the increased salaries that would be needed otherwise. And that’s before we factor in the benefits to the firm of greater employee commitment, the extra effort given and the likely heightened engagement with the job.

Managers do what they do because they want an outcome for the firm. Sometimes, to get what they want they have to put a little trust in the people on whom their success depends.


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