In the eyes of the manager

Freddie Alves, managing director at Talking Talent, says structure is needed to de-risk flexible working for managers.


A manager within a Financial Services firm said to me at a recent focus group: “I don’t really care if the person reporting to me is here from 9 to 6 or not. She gets the job done.” This attitude was not shared by everyone in the room. For some, agreeing to flexible working arrangements was a sign of managerial weakness which would lead to an unproductive, “anything goes” culture.

Many management teams remain divided between the champions and the critics of flexible and agile working. In my experience, many businesses have great inconsistencies in how flexible working arrangements are viewed and adopted.

Why does this matter? In a major 2015 research project, Talking Talent asked thousands of women “What support would help to reduce barriers to career progression?” More than half identified access to flexible working as critical. We know the generation joining the workforce today put flexibility and life balance very high on their list of priorities.

And there is a business case for flexible working. According to research by the Agile Future Forum, the value of people working in different ways can be a 3% -7% saving on workforce costs and increased sales revenues of 11% in some cases. We also know that 80% of millennials value balance over their position. So an employee feeling that they are achieving their dual purposes at home and work will be more motivated to work harder for an organisation.

For employers needing to attract and retain talent, and those not succeeding in that, the flexibility question should no longer be why but how?

So what helps get an organisation unstuck? Most of them have policies and practices which are capable, in principle, of delivering good outcomes. But listen to what managers and employees say and it’s often along the lines of what one senior leader in the FMCG sector tells us: “[we have] a strong set of policies but they are not well understood or used. They need to be made accessible through communication, manager awareness and more consistent support for managers from HR”.

We won’t get ‘unstuck’ by beating managers around the head and telling them to “just get on with it”. We can’t ignore the real lives and anxieties of managers on the ground. It’s not unreasonable to have concerns about productivity, accessibility, client service, cross-team collaboration and more. We need to acknowledge and find ways to overcome them.

Paradoxically, I see greater flexibility coming from structure, agreements, testing and measurement. It is not enough to have a generalised policy on flexible working. It makes sense to help employees and managers gather the right insights, have an effective discussion about possible approaches and reach an agreement. It’s when the detailed questions are not addressed that things go wrong, arrangements fail and the experience only increases the reluctance of managers to support flexible working. Typically, sustained success depends on answering questions such as:

  • How, if at all, will the delivery of existing goals and objectives be affected by the new arrangement?
  • If client service is involved, how will this be maintained at or above current levels?
  • What, if any, impact will there be on the rest of the team and what is the plan to manage that fairly?
  • What’s the best way to let other people know about the new arrangement and answer reasonable questions?
  • What additional support or resources will the employee need to be effective under the new arrangement?
  • What are the things we need to do to ensure the employee remains included and integrated with the rest of the team?
  • What is a reasonable trial period for the arrangement?
  • At the end of the trial how will we measure success?

Over time, perhaps the answer to some of these questions will become so obvious they need not be asked. But to help get organisations become ‘unstuck’ we need to do more to de-risk flexible working in the eyes of the manager to create this more accepted culture. It’s not natural to leap before having the chance to look.

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