Working outside the walls

How to handle issues with workplace flexibility

Generation Y
Generation Y

By and large, the digital age in the contemporary workplace is stimulating new demands of today’s workforce. The more our culture can adapt to the needs of people, the more organizations will attract, train, retain and sustain talent.

Due to the advances of both technology and automation, there is no longer a need to operate 40 to 50 hours a week in an on-site office space – unless, of course, the nature of the position requires on-site presence.

On the other hand, until there’s a shift in acceptance within organizations themselves to adapt to the contemporary wishes of the emerging workforce, we may not see requests for flexibility being granted.   

Recently a member of our staff had the opportunity to sit down with Katie Felten, co-founder of Strategy House. At a high level, the company’s broad focus is providing marketing services for manufacturing companies. Strategy House offers a variety of services, including blogging, social media and digital advertising.

According to Katie, Strategy House operates nearly 100 percent remotely. This sets it apart from many typical marketing companies.

Katie expressed that in many ways, people just have to be trusted to get their work done. The delegation process is somewhat of a “learning curve” for the organization, but the work is well-received by its clients. She also says many clients are probably unaware that there isn’t a “traditional structure” in place. As you look for ways to allow more flexibility for individuals who are asking for it, there are a number of questions for you to consider:

What kinds of challenges can we foresee our employees experiencing?

Though employees are looking for flexibility, do not mistake this for a disinterest in clarity of expectations and accountability. It can be easy for employees to become distracted by other things throughout the day. Along with this, however, many organizations have seen productivity increase when employees are allowed to work from home and determine the ebbs and flows of their day. Being distracted during the standard business hours can be okay if the employee works early or late. This can be an opportunity for employees to produce work at their best times. 

What kinds of challenges will leaders experience?

Many leaders assume, perhaps fairly so, that having people working remotely will make their jobs more difficult. After all, they cannot rely on “I see you; therefore, you must be working.” Regular conversations and monitoring of work completion (along with quality of work) needs to be woven into the leader’s time to ensure everyone is on the same page and, also, that work is progressing on schedule. Additionally, leaders will need to respond to challenges posed by others (i.e., “Why does she get to work from home and I can’t?”). In another example, an employee of an organization came in to work every day at 6 a.m. and asked to leave at 4 p.m. The vice president of her department declined, saying, “You have to stay until 5 like everyone else, because if they see you leave, they will want to leave.” Interestingly, she was the only one coming in at 6 a.m. If leaders do not know what they would say to others, they often avoid the issue and simply say, “No.”

How do we respond to employees whose roles do not allow for flexibility, especially when they see others around them being granted this flexibility?

Affirm, then redirect! “I understand your confusion or disappointment about this. And it’s fair to feel this way. Unfortunately, your role does not allow for this. I’m sorry.”

How do we respond to employees who are asking for flexibility, but who are underperforming? 

Again, affirm then redirect. “I’m glad to know this is of interest to you. We should talk about what needs to happen so that we can discuss this option for you.”

This is an area where individual conversations and agreements are as important as the philosophical discussions related to where people do their work.

Affording employees the opportunity to work flexible hours and in flexible locations is still a struggle for many companies and for many leaders within these companies. I encourage you to be listening to how this theme is bubbling up from your workforce. At the very least, every organization should have an aligned stance on this issue. And leaders should be aligned around the company stance, not around their own personal opinions.

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Aleta Norris is a partner and co-founder of Living As A Leader, a national leadership training, coaching and consulting firm. Living As A Leader supports the development of leaders in more than 125 organizations across the country. For several years, Aleta has been researching and speaking about the critical responsibilities organizations and leaders share related to the attraction, retention and engagement of the emerging workforce.

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