Be open to the notion of the flexible workplace

“I have to tell you, I don’t like what you’re saying at all. Quite frankly, I’m having a very hard time with it. I don’t have the liberty of giving these twenty-something-year-olds these things they want. They may want flexible work schedules, and they may want to do their work at Starbucks, but we work for taxpayers. And, I’m going to tell you right now, that wouldn’t fly with them.”

This statement was an interruption that came about 10 minutes into a 60-minute speaking engagement with 100 leaders from across the country. I was sharing information related to the evolving world of work. Workplace preferences held by young professionals today are different from the preferences of young professionals 20 and 30 years ago.

Let’s go back to this “interrupter” person. Add to the words the (what I would call) indignant, unbending, intolerant, parental tone of voice. And further, imagine that these words are being voiced to an employee. With an estimated 46 percent of new employees leaving their job within a year because of dissatisfaction (source: Human Resources Employee Engagement Statistics), I would say this type of response may increase the likelihood of an employee departure.

Let’s build a simple case study around requests for flexibility (just one growing young employee preference) and take a look at a number of scenarios.

Situation: Imagine that an employee approaches his or her leader to say, “Hey, with the work I do, I can really do it anywhere. Would it be possible for me to have some flexibility in terms of when and where I do my work?” Of course, you will use discretion on a per-industry, per-function, per-role basis. At the same time, keep in mind that workplace flexibility has surpassed work/life balance as a key preference of our emerging workforce. So regardless of the industry, function or role, your challenge will be to see if you can honor preferences in some way. You may or may not be able to. The key will be your willingness to explore.

Let’s look at a number of potential leader responses. This is not just about employees always getting what they want. This is also about a leader’s willingness to try getting employees what they want. And yes, performance factors into the equation. As you read each response, think about how likely it is that the employee will want to work for this leader.

Leader #1 is not all that enamored with changing preferences and replies, “Listen, you may want a flexible work schedule, you may want to hang out with your professional friends and work at Starbucks. BUT, we work for the taxpayers, and I’m going to tell you right now, that is not going to fly with them.”

Leader #2 understands that this is important to young professionals, though she also may feel that the request may be difficult to honor. She replies, “Thanks for asking. I am very happy to talk with you about what we might be able to do. While I’m not sure this will work, given our environment, let’s see if we might be able to do at least something.”

Leader #3 is concerned that if she allows this employee to have flexibility, EVERYONE will want flexibility. And, actually, she has some low performers whom she feels should not have this flexibility. She replies, “No, we can’t do this. If I let you have flexibility, I’ll have to allow everyone to have flexibility.”

Leader #4 is open to discussing this with this employee, because he is a great performer. She has less-high-performing employees, and if they make such a request, she will talk to them about their performance needing to get up to par first. She sees this as a separate issue. So, turning back to the employee in front of her now, she replies, “You have never disappointed me in your consistently high performance. I think you are making a fair request, and I’d like to talk about how this would work.”

Leader #5 realizes the employee making the request is not the best performer, so absolutely not. She replies, “Quite frankly, your performance is not where it needs to be, so I can’t honor this request.”

Leader #6 realizes the employee making the request is not the best performer, though she is willing to explore this further. “Let’s talk about this. I have concerns about the performance issues we’ve talked about. The first step will be getting your performance where it needs to be, then we can revisit this issue of flexibility.”

Which of the above leaders are you? Are you the kind of leader that will inspire employees to stay or leave?

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