Flexible working is all the rage — at least, if job ads and company profiles are anything to go by. The move towards more holistic ways of doing business has been gradually unfolding for decades, and it’s admirable. Work has always been more than a place, and now, we have the tools to build our working identities with peers outside of the conventional office.
But flexible working (sometimes called distributed working) is harder than it looks to pull off — and letting staff head home a little early doesn’t cut it.
These tips, born from experience, can help you establish a more flexible workplace, especially if you’re transitioning from a traditional, nine-to-five environment.
Share the vision
Cultures take time to set and even more time to undo. If you’re keen to shift towards a more flexible workplace, give you and your people time to lean into the change. Too much too quickly can sabotage your end goal by prickling people’s comfort zones.
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Lay out your vision and enlist support to get there over time, with clear milestones and lots of communication about why you’re making a change.
Culture is a long game, but behaviours do change and can be reset to invigorating effect.
Flexible means different things to different people. For some, it’s fully remote working that allows team members to craft their own schedules and work outputs. For others, it’s the freedom to work at home one day a week. Be clear about what you mean when you say flexible for your organisation, to avoid confusion or concerns. Set boundaries around time and access.
Allow your team members to set their own expectations around availability, and ensure everyone does their best to respect them. If someone has specific windows of time where they’re accessible, don’t hassle them outside of this timeframe (unless it’s an emergency, and establish processes for that too).
Lead by example
You can’t ask your team to do something you’re not prepared to do yourself — including giving yourself a break. It just won’t work, as they’ll see your behaviour as the implied norm and think they’re being asked to do the same.
Figure out how you too can work flexibly in a way that suits your best self and life arrangements, and be public about working that way.
Share your experiences with your team, including what’s easy, what’s hard, and what’s taken you by surprise.
This helps embed flexibility as a true cultural norm, from the top down.
Find team members who are like-minded about embracing flexible working, and collaborate with them to roll out changes. Let them lead by telling their stories and sharing their perspectives, making their own case for a new way.
Allow team members to proactively identify change opportunities — a project that can be run remotely, a meeting that doesn’t need to be face-to-face, or a new tool that could help staff organise time more optimally. They’ll reward your trust with results.
Enterprise social-networking tools help create the feeling of an office in the cloud. Some form of ‘virtual’ workplace is important if you’re invested in transitioning to greater flexibility.
People need to feel ‘seen’, even if they’re not in the room, and connected to peers.
Digital tools also help you and your team build knowledge repositories that reduce the need for daily physical contact or constant interruption.
Show the impact
If you’re an employee who wants their employer to adopt more flexible working practices, you can help by building the business case for why it’s the smart play.
Focus on how the change would affect your own productivity, in relation to business objectives, and share stats and reading to underscore the commercial benefits.
Depending on your relationship with your boss, you might also want to be cheeky and point out competitors that are getting it right. Show the impact and the ask will have more punch.
Of course, not every business, or every role, can easily transition to working remotely or distributed. But think outside the box and you’ll be amazed how many can evolve in that direction.
Give it a try, and tell your story along the way. You’ll inspire others and we can all get better at this together.