Building a culture of flexible work for optimal performance
The rise of the millennial workforce, combined with a more open and connected world, has made it easier than ever for employees to work flexibly, including working remotely. Leaders who build a practice of flexible working within their organisation experience benefits like increased engagement, lower turnover rates, improved recruitment, and better work-life balance among staff members – so why aren’t more businesses encouraging flexibility? Culture is the biggest barrier to flexible working. Every organisation struggles to balance trust with accountability, when team members are not in the office together or working at the same time. There needs to be trust that people will deliver ‘what is required and when’ and be accountable for how much time they spend working. This requires a culture of trust without fear.
So what is a flexible work culture?
A flexible work culture allows employees to choose how, when and where they do their work. It's not just about getting employees to work from home when they need to - flexible work exists when employees’ schedules are organised according to their own needs and goals, whilst meeting work goals, rather than being dictated by the organisation. The key is that flexibility needs to be driven by organisational culture rather than imposed on it – it needs to be core to beliefs and constructs that influence behaviour and measurements of success, not be in conflict with them.
A flexible work culture, in itself, is not a panacea for all that ills an organisation. But it can help to create a more inclusive environment where people feel empowered and supported to do their work, in a way that suits them best. It also helps organisations attract and retain top talent by offering greater flexibility around work/life balance, and is often described as being at least as important as a 5% pay increase. When it comes right down to it, once reaching a certain threshold, most people would choose greater control over their lives and schedules, over smaller pay increase increments. As a result they can spend more time with loved ones or pursue other interests outside of work hours, while still getting paid an adequate income for their efforts.
How to build a flexible work culture that creates high performance
Building a flexible workplace culture is not for the faint of heart, or uncommitted. You will need to make changes to your existing processes and systems, which may be challenging if you're used to working in a more traditional setting. But that doesn't mean it's impossible. Generally speaking, most of the challenges organisations tend to face in this area come down to communication and setting expectations. This normally happens as the middle management or direct leader level, so they change needs this group to be absolute champions and skilled to respond. You may enjoy another recent article on Change Readiness, to think about how you can prepare for this. In order for people (and organisations) to respond positively when they're given more freedom over their schedules and tasks, there needs to be trust between them and those in charge—and open communication between everyone involved around what's expected.
Organisations that want to build a more flexible culture and create the conditions for people to bring their best can focus on a few key areas:
Train your leaders to implement flexible working. One of the most important things you can do to support flexible working is upskill your leaders to role model and implement it.
Direct leaders will play an essential role in helping employees make the most of flexible working opportunities, so it's best to ensure they are equipped with the right skills before putting them into practice. Without the right skills to guide and communicate, and tools to manage productivity, direct leaders could end up feeling lost on how to coach and develop their employees, or how to develop an appropriate level of accountability.
More senior leaders also need to be open-minded about new ways of working if they're going to help employees thrive in a more flexible workplace. That means firstly understanding what flexibility looks like, and any unconscious bias they may hold about flexibility; then being willing to adjust their own habits accordingly—such as role modelling flexibility when possible. This could be as simple as setting up email protocols so that emails aren’t sent and delivered at all hours, but within agreed timeframes. A more complex element may be engaging in open discussions about what is “acceptable” in the organisation, and preparing to be challenged.
Drive success through proper communication
In order to ensure people can remain connected, regardless of the time and method of working, frequent and effective communication is critical. Leaders will need to communicate regularly with their teams in order to stay on top of their progress, and the team will need frequent updates from their leader in order to complete tasks efficiently. Regular check-ins and open communication will help ensure that everyone is on the same page and that any issues can be quickly addressed. From the outset, decide and agree on how and when meetings should be run and each of your team’s preferred method of communication (email, phone, video). The range of communication channels and online tools available today means that staying in touch is easier than ever. But just having these tools is not enough – leaders have to commit to using them consistently and embed them as part of the everyday functioning of the team.
Leaders can quickly become busy with their “task list”. Assuming, a team size of 4-8 people, spending time communicating with employees would form at least 20 to 30% of a leader’s role. This is productive time and needs to be considered as such.
Set realistic expectations with clear goals and objectives
An essential part of building a successful flexible work culture is creating clarity about what success looks like, and how it will be measured within the organisation. Once you have clear objectives and direction, it becomes easier for individuals within your organisation to meet those goals. Make sure that everyone understands what is expected of them. Set clear, realistic expectations and guidelines for performance, deadlines and outcomes, and what metrics will be used to evaluate these.
Focus on outcomes, not attendance
In some respects, it’s easy to believe that measuring how long people are at the office can be a good way of assessing their productivity. It's not—and for many reasons. First, output is more important than input; what your team can produce with its time and resources matters much more than whether they're sitting in the office or not. Second, when you measure attendance instead of output, it creates an environment where employees feel pressured to work longer hours rather than focusing on what really counts: getting things done well. Third, if you focus on quantity over quality, then there's little incentive for people go beyond the minimum and take extra steps that will enhance the final product or make sure it meets high standards of excellence. The solution? Focus on outcomes—what does success look like? How will we know when we've achieved our goals? What does each person need from me so that they can reach those goals?
Instead of worrying about who's coming in early or staying late or working remotely from home one day per week, start managing outcomes: What did we achieve last week/month/quarter? How much did we grow as a team since our last quarterly meeting three months ago?"
Trust is collaborative and continuous
Building trust isn’t a one-time exercise. It is a mutual connection between two or more individuals that is continuous worked on and towards. Trust from the outset is empowering at all levels, and it minimises concerns around accountability, or the need for micromanagement. Trust between individuals and leaders, or the organisational, supported by expectations, technology and processes, makes up the foundation of a successful flexible work culture. Building and maintaining trust doesn’t have to feel difficult, and there are several ways that you can foster it:
- Have a clear purpose for flexible working – be open about what you hope flexible working achieves and your principles to guide it. This provides the anchor for which decisions, changes, updates etc. can be made, and ensures everyone is of the same understanding.
- Demonstrate commitment, honesty and transparency at all levels – this means being open about why you're making changes in your flexible
- Show respect for everyone’s time and personal goals – your people will feel more comfortable taking advantage of the flexibility options if they know they won't have to worry about being judged by co-workers or managers who may not understand that they need some flexibility outside of normal working hours occasionally (e.g., due to family obligations).
- Keep communication lines open — with remote teams and/or teams working in separate locations, it’s easy to forget to relay important information regarding specific roles, expectations and task deadlines. As with any new initiative, it's important to keep everyone informed about what's happening. This will help ensure that everyone has a chance to weigh in on decisions that affect them personally. Employees who feel like their voices, ideas, and perspectives are heard and valued are more likely to have a greater sense of trust in their organisation.
- Encourage social interactions – trust is the foundation to relationships, and ongoing relationship embeds trust. Find deliberate space that lets team members interact on non-work activities, which they are interested in.
- Create feedback loops – what has worked in the past, even the recent past, may quickly become out-dated, whether due to technology, changes in team members, or the nature of work. Establish reviews on flexible working to ensure it still achieves the intended results, and be open to continuous improvement. When this occurs be sure to update expectations clearly with team members – and link this back to the purpose of flexible working so that it does not appear like change for change-sake.
- Have a clear guide on Flexible Work Arrangements – having clear policies and procedures in place is critical for building trust within a culture of flexible work. People need to know what to expect in this space, what opportunities and restrictions are in place, and what flexible working looks like for your specific organisation. Karyn Gould highlighted some excellent points for consideration in her recent article (LINK) on this topic.
It’s clear that the workplace is changing, and the stakes are high. If an organisation wants to attract and retain the best people, there is no longer any excuse for them to ignore the changes taking place in how we work. Rather than fighting against it or trying to hold on to old ways of doing things, organisations need to genuinely embrace flexible work and make it an integral part of their business model. By taking this approach they will be able to create more engaged employees who have happier lives outside of work, which means better results overall for everyone involved.