“How can I leave on time and still be seen as committed?” In a room of coaches and employers at a seminar we ran at the University of Hertfordshire on maternity comeback coaching recently, this was the subject participants honed in on out of 28 themes marked up for potential discussion.
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The question comes up time and again when working in a coaching relationship with maternity returners. It’s often on the mind of anyone who is switching to a flexible style of working that goes against the cultural norm of their organisation. But predominantly it’s on the minds of mothers, and is likely to stay that way until it’s equally likely a man as a woman is primarily responsible for caring for their offspring. Or that our culture supports and even expects, care to be shared evenly.
Going against the grain has never been easy, but it can be more comfortable. In this post I’m signposting a few ways to manage the perceptions others have about your organizational commitment as a ‘flexible worker’ and practical suggestions for line managers too.
- Know the value and talent-pool-expanding correlates of flexibly working
Remember that employees who work flexibly are on average[i], more committed to the organisation than other employees who don’t ‘benefit’ from such arrangements. Flexible working is not yet the norm in the UK and research shows those who work flexibly feel grateful and also the need to reciprocate through working harder. A study by Catalyst[ii] found that women in organisations that offer flexible working are 30% more likely to aspire to high-level positions than those at organisations that do not offer flexible ways of working.
- Be vocal about home time
Vocally call out that it’s time for a team member to leave the office, especially if your colleague is new to a flexible arrangement. It’s surprising how a bright, confident and valued member of the team can feel awkward, guilty and worried about leaving the office before everyone else. You may need to communicate permission repeatedly and overtly for more time than you realise, to erase these feelings. It will be worth it.
- Lead whole-team discussions of flexible working
Put ‘ways of working’ on the agenda at team meetings a couple of times a year. Invite the team to acknowledge what’s working for them currently and suggestions as to ways things could work better. Some flexibility for everyone may be valuable and discussing and agreeing how flexibility could work in practice is a great way to build trust and commitment within the team. It can be surprising how just the smallest bit of flexibility can make a significant positive impact on an individual’s life and therefore their commitment and engagement at work. [The right to request flexible working was due to be extended to all employees on April 6th 2014 (it currently only applies to employees who have a child under the age of 17 or 18 if the child is disabled) but has been held up in parliament due to the Child and Families Bill].
- Reward output, not presenteeism
Focus on output when assessing performance, rather than whose bottom has been on their seat the longest each day/week/month (presenteeim). Notice and reward effectiveness and efficiency, even if that’s simply through verbal praise (which can go much further than tangible rewards when it comes to motivating employees).
- Check your mindset
Look at your own mindset; what do you really think when you think about flexible working? Are you harbouring negative beliefs? Do you really trust your team to get on and do a good job unless you can see them? If not, how will them sitting under your watchful eye build trust?
- Consider a ‘core hours’ culture
Try to schedule team meetings during ‘core’ office hours rather than at the fringe of the day (unless that suits everyone in the team). Whilst your organisation might not have an official core hours culture (often 10am – 3pm) it’s in your gift to create this sub-culture in your team if a number of your team want and can, work flexibly.
- Learn from peers who have engaged, diverse teams
Notice how your peers do things in their team – and pay particular attention to any who seem to have a particular happy set of direct reports. What can you take from them? Flexible working may be part of their ‘magic.’
- Know the value of remote working
Know that there is value in office workers working somewhere other than an open-plan office. Research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2013[iii] finds increased distraction and decreased satisfaction go hand in hand with such spaces, so a good alternative may be working from home or smaller, offsite work spaces.
You might also find the related post “Are you penalising part-time employees” useful.
Remember that at least some of the (negative) perceptions you believe others’ have about you specific to your flexible working patterns, are all in your mind.
- Discuss it as a team
Firmly suggest flexible working to go on the team meeting agenda and ask your colleagues to be frank about opportunities and concerns they see with changes to the way you work. Use this time to demonstrate how you can mitigate potential problems and how there may be upsides for the team. For example, perhaps you’ll do early starts or late finishes that could be of wider benefit? By getting it out in the open and ‘thrashing it out’ you’re essentially asking colleagues to put up or shut up. Once it’s done, you have your licence to crack on and do a great job, flexibly.
- Think “I’m a role model, a culture-shaper”
Don’t apologise or demonstrate body language that suggests you are doing something wrong, when you leave the office whilst others are still at desks. You may be doing something different to others, but that isn’t the same as ‘wrong.’ And remember that some people may be watching you and essentially thinking ‘there goes a role model – that gives me permission to do it too.’
- Offer alternative communication channels
If a colleague tries to catch you on your wait out (and you’re already wondering if you’ll make pick-up in time) say you’ll be happy to carry on the conversation by mobile. Signal you’re going to dial them as you continue moving toward the door.
- Demonstrate the benefits
Remind your colleagues of the research around the positive correlations between flexible working and commitment. You’re savvy enough to find an appropriate way to sprinkle a little of Cranfield University’s Clare Kelliher and Deirdre Anderson’s researchthat finds flexible workers record higher levels of job satisfaction and organizational commitment than their non-flexible counterparts. And that this is probably due to social-exchange theory where the ‘flexee’ responds to the granting of flexibility by exerting additional effort.
- See the longer view
And finally, if you’re still feeling on edge, imagine you are leaving one office to walk to another to carry on the day with a client, colleague or to work quietly in isolation away from the distraction of an open-plan space. You might smile as you walk out, pondering how ridiculous your children and grandchildren will find these tales of furtive escape from the office in years to come when the working world has evolved some more.
What other suggestions do you have based on your own experience of working flexibly or creating strong teams who operate flexibly? Please add your thoughts to the post using the box below – when we share what works we make working life better for everyone.
[i] Kelliher, C. and Anderson, D. (2010). Doing more with less? Flexible working practises and the intensification of work. Human Relations, 63, 83-106.
[ii] Catalyst. (2013). The great debate: flexibility vs. face time. Busting the myths behind flexible working arrangements.
[iii] Kim, J. and de Dear, R. (2013). Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 18-26.