Simple secrets to making flexible work arrangements effective

NASA just released a statement suggesting there was once water on planet Mars and that ancient Mars was habitable for life. This got me thinking about organizations working across planets, intergalactic commute and people working on one planet while their “office” was in another. What would teams and their work arrangements then look like?

Closer home, earlier this month, the European Court of Justice ruled that commute time to and from employee’s first and last appointments of the day must be counted as work hours by their employers. While this was in the context of employees with no fixed office and companies that shut down regional offices requiring employees to commute more, it could have significant impact on how companies and managers look at work hours, minimum wages, role allocation and appointment schedules of employees.

It’s easier said than done. Most companies I have been fortunate in working with, implement (or think about implementing) flexible work arrangements for all the right reasons: higher employee engagement, retaining their female workforce especially returning mothers and supporting employee work-life balance.

It actually does make hard, financial sense too. Flexible work arrangements can drastically reduce your infrastructure cost including precious real estate for work space, electricity, pantry supplies and often, machines and equipment. It also can slash replacement hiring and new hire training costs by boosting retention in the medium-to-long run – something worth tracking from the get-go of launching flexible work arrangements.

At the same time, experience also shows that for most managers and teams, living the reality of flexible work arrangements committed to in the organization’s policy is an entirely different story.

As a manager, here’s what you need to be thinking about when implementing flexible work arrangements for yourself and your team:

Manage the culture of “face time”

I once heard this during a client engagement, “She doesn’t even come to work every day. How can she get the best performer award?” Nothing destroys the vision of flexible work arrangements as much as equating face time with performance. It is an extension of the same evil that equates staying for long hours in office with working harder than others who leave on time.

It’s not the time you spend but what you do with it that counts: As a manager, it is imperative that you reinforce that through your words and your actions.

Some managers conquer the culture of face time by making it a point to use flexible work arrangements actively themselves. When your team “sees” less of you but still feels work getting done like it used to and perhaps better, it overcomes the comfortable resistance of flexible work arrangements.

Ensure clarity on performance outcomes

Especially when you are not meeting your teams in person every day, it becomes critical that everyone knows exactly what they need to achieve and why. This accomplishes two very important things that flexible work arrangements need to thrive. One, it keeps team performance on track even if you are not closely and visibly monitoring it all the time. And second, it breaks through the ambiguity on how an individual’s performance is going to be measured, “now that they are not always in office”.

Create a culture of accountability

With flexible work arrangements, teams become virtual. And one of biggest pain points in virtual teams is accountability. In all my discussions with virtual teams and their managers, it is a repeated concern that in their teams, everything gets labeled a “team effort”, the manager is clueless about who has contributed what and free-loaders get a free pass to decent performance ratings, increments and sometimes promotions which they would not have if they were working within viewing distance of their manager. Delegate work and call out who is accountable clearly, champion transparency in your team and encourage honest dialogue about performance.

Strengthen planning

“I didn’t know this need to be done” or “I thought we were going to work on this together next week” can be become he-said-she-said arguments. They can chip away at team bonding and compromise achievement of outcomes. When I say strengthen planning, I have seen teams responding with detailed excel worksheets that document who will do what, by when, running into over one hundred rows. The problem with that kind of planning is no one, including you is ever going to look at the worksheet again, let alone monitor it, update it and use it to find out who dropped the ball.

The strongest plans are also the simplest and clearest.

Brainstorm as a team and come up with a simple framework that works for you. Consider making the plan result focused with sufficient milestones that can be frequently reviewed.

Up your communication

Last but never the least, communicate, communicate, communicate. It is the best way to create a sense of belonging to a team even when people don’t share physical workspace or the same work times. On days and at times when people are together, ensure you maximize personal interactions. The computer screen can wait. For all other times, while email is a necessary evil, increase the frequency of audio and video conferencing to make the team feel connected.

It is important we get flexible work arrangements right, because that’s what the future is going to increasingly look like. And once we do, I am sure we will find we are all happier, more engaged and more productive as a result. What do you say? Are you ready to check in (or must I say, log in!) from Planet B? Leave a comment and let me know 🙂

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