I am a big advocate of flexible working. In fact, to make my life work I demand it. Alarmingly the more I talk to others about this the more I am told that for many the disappointing reality falls well short of the potential. It should therefore be no surprise that while the majority of companies already offer flexible work arrangements, they struggle to get their staff to take it up. It seems that sometimes flexible working is actually not flexible at all.
Completing a timesheet on a work from home day, being told that flexible working is for females with children or being granted flex time only if sales targets are met, are real recent examples of how employers can take the flex out of flexible working arrangements. I am sure organisations enter into flexibility with the best of intentions, although something between creation and execution is going awry.
The reality is there is still a stigma associated with flexible working. That working from home means not working at all and that less physical time in the office equals less commitment. There are many people I speak to afraid to ask for flexibility as they see it as something they need to earn. Ring-fencing conditions are worse than not offering it at all. Such situations can lead to confusion and perceived inequity which can simmer under the surface creating a toxic work culture. What’s really missing here is trust. And it’s this sense of trust between employer and employee that has given me the opportunity to work the way that I do.
My world is no longer compartmentalised. It’s an ever-changing blurred and blended world of work and home. I choose when, where and how I work. I feel no pressure to show my face in the office and I have stopped being petrified by dogs barking and children crying when I do have to take an important call from a colleague. In my workplace this is accepted, even encouraged. Knowing I am trusted makes way for efficiency so that when I am out with a client or in the office I am present and productive. I know my company looks to the quality of my outputs, not face or desk time.
It takes more than a policy to implement flexible working successfully. As both a mum of three boys and a manager I have been able to see the critical success factors from both sides.
It starts with the leadership team being bold, exposing bias that may exist and forming an agreed view on what flexibility means for their organisation. It also must match what is right for employees and clients. Clear communication to front line managers with tools for measuring success as well as early indications of problems is vital to dispel the fear of out-of-sight meaning out-of-control.
I have found that once you are able to demonstrate the same quality of work, trust builds exponentially. Perhaps my circumstances have been a forcing function; however I have always sought out who to ask and what to ask for. Constant two-way communication is key. This takes all forms: email, phone, instant messaging, video calls and in-person meetings. Most importantly, if flexibility is open to everyone and metered out equally and not reserved for special cases, I know I will not be judged or disadvantaged.
Employers need not start from scratch. Reinvigorating existing policies with a focus on trust and implementation will unlock a compounding set of benefits: access to a broader and diverse talent pool, higher take up and ultimately a place where people want, not have to work.
Lean In is an alumni authored column that focuses on themes about work/life balance, women in leadership roles, workplace (in)equality, ambition and opportunities. Lean In provides alumni with a space to candidly discuss workplace issues that many think about but rarely discuss publicly.