What they don’t tell you about leading flexible teams

At the start of this year, it seemed inevitable that hybrid working would to some extent become the norm for white collar labour.

That prognosis still probably holds in the long term, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see a relapse over the next year.

The cost of living crisis and recession are focusing minds. People are unlikely to be as insistent about their working conditions if they’re worried about meeting mortgage payments. At the same time, the risk of redundancies – which will sadly rise – will mean people are more likely to want to show their faces in the office.

There are doubtless some who will be quietly satisfied with this. Many leaders have struggled with hybrid, seeing any persistent working from home as an aberration.

For some businesses it may indeed be the case that hybrid working isn’t the best fit – investment banks that rely on large numbers of graduate trainees, for example.

As we’ve written before however, the more important element of the working revolution in the past two and half years is not necessarily where people work, but how it is decided. When it comes to worker satisfaction and motivation, flexibility is much more important than hybridness.

The benefits of flexible working are immense and tangible. I know, because I work with amazingly talented people who I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to, had I always insisted on five days a week on site.

People appreciate an employer who acknowledges that they have a life outside work, and that sometimes our traditional patterns of work don’t fit those lives. It could mean working at home sometimes, or working part time, or just being unavailable at certain times, but it’s what that person needs to make the job work for them.

Beyond talent acquisition and retention, being trusted to work flexibly makes people feel more valued, which pays back tenfold in their productivity and commitment to the business.

What they don’t tell you

As the title of this blog alludes to though, flexible working isn’t all having cake and eating it.

With everyone working at different times, in different places and in different patterns, it can get seriously hard to keep track, and if you’re not careful that can get in the way of getting things done.

More often than not, the person who will be most affected by this is you, the boss.

Leaders are accustomed to people being available when and where they want them, and can get frustrated by the idea that we can’t talk about X or Y today because Eric doesn’t work on alternate Tuesdays.

It’s tempting just to call them anyway, but the message that sends is that your commitment to flexible working is hollow.  If you ever hear yourself uttering the words ‘Sorry to bother you on your day off, but…’  it may be time to bite your tongue.

To some this will sound like more trouble than it’s worth, but just because it can be difficult to manage the practicalities of flexible work, there’s no excuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Leading a flexible team – and more broadly facilitating flexible working across the whole organisation – requires the same essentially high-EQ approach as leading any other team, except it’s that even more important that you get it right.

This starts with setting clear and reasonable boundaries and expectations. You are going to help make the job work for them, but they also need to commit to making it work for you. Compromise should be your bread and butter.

Agree between you what successful flexible working looks like in their specific case, based on what they need to do their job well – not just their individual work, but also what they contribute to collaborative work.

Practically speaking, it may be that you won’t call them on Thursday afternoons because that’s when they do the school run, but that you might call them afterwards to make up for it.

You may need to ask forgiveness sometimes if you forget, because as mentioned above that can happen, but if you’ve established and reinforced your buy-in for flexibility, then they should be able to gently remind you without worrying.

As a general principle, flexible working depends on trust. Assess people by their results, not on whether you can see them working, or how quickly they reply to emails.

This works both ways of course. If employees aren’t open with you, then you’ll never really know how their job fits into their life, what motivates them and how/where/when they like to get things done.

As with most things, the best way to encourage openness is to show it. Be honest about what aspects of flexibility work for you, and about your own working patterns. This will make it easier for them to do the same.

Above all, be flexible about flexible working. There is no simple template for what is a relatively new and often quite complex and organisation-specific change in working practices, but stick with the principles of trust, reasonableness and open dialogue, and you’ll reap the benefits.

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Growth and Leadership

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