The first step toward an effective flexible workplace is for managers to create an environment where employees feel they can discuss available work-life options without being stigmatized. Below are some tips that can help managers create such an environment, followed by additional tips for actually having these conversations with employees.
STEP 1: Create an Environment that Values Flexible Work
1. Make information about flexible work options easy to access and make it clear that you are willing to discuss these options.
Do so by letting all team members know that you welcome these conversations and direct them to where they can find this info should they need it.
2. If you become aware of a major life event for an employee, remind them that you can discuss flexible work options if they are interested.
Share your availability with all employees in these circumstances, not just women. Doing so is important for retaining employees who may need these options but may not feel comfortable initiating a conversation.
3. Avoid assigning value judgments or priority ranking to competing responsibilities.
When family and/or child-related obligations are perceived as “more acceptable” reasons to request flex work, child-free employees are alienated. Managers should consider all flex work requests with the same respect.
4. Think beyond a one-size-fits-all approach.
Different job roles may result in different kinds or degrees of flexible work options. Generally, it should be up to managers and their direct reports to discuss and arrive at solutions that work.
5. Model flexible work practices.
For example, if you leave early to pick up a child or pursue outside interests, don’t be afraid to mention this to your team. Even small signals such as these can help normalize these practices and remove the stigma sometimes associated with flexible work.
6. Male allies in particular can help to normalize these practices.
For example, if you take paternity leave or time off to participate in a bike-tour or other personal interest, consider including an out-of-office email message that acknowledges this. Given current societal expectations around work and personal life, making such statements can sometimes be less risky for men than for women. It also can help to change these societal expectations in ways that benefit both women and men.
7. Listen for and correct comments that stigmatize flex work.
Correct statements like, “I doubt they’ll work as hard from home,” “It must be nice to have that time off,” or “I couldn’t do a flexible schedule because then I would never get promoted.” For example, point out that you know many employees who are very productive from home.
STEP 2: Tips for Having Flexible Work Conversations
1. Prior to the conversation, make sure you are informed on the various options offered by the company.
Consult the appropriate sources within your company so you are aware of the most updated information.
2. Ask the employee what their ideal situation would look like.
Even if the ideal situation is not feasible, starting here will likely help you reach a solution that benefits both the company and the employee.
3. Be open to creative arrangements and explore options before deciding something will not work.
Often the default answer to something that hasn’t been tried before is “no.” A willingness to explore new possibilities communicates a spirit of inquiry and a willingness to work together, even if these particular solutions turn out to be unfeasible at the moment.
4. If you can’t provide the employee with their ideal situation, propose a compromise that will work for everyone.
To do so, identify the primary needs of the team and the employee. For example, does the employee need to work remotely, be free certain times of day, and/or have a reduced workload? Does the team need the employee in the office at certain times more than others? Answering these kinds of questions will help you narrow down the options and plan the best ways to meet these needs.
5. Once deciding on a particular arrangement, be clear about the expectations for performance and how this will be assessed.
Schedule regular “check-ins” with the employee to communicate any necessary updates and to assess if and how well the flexible work plan is working for both parties.
6. Come to an agreement about the best ways for the employee to communicate with the team.
For example, some teams create flexible environments by making sure to schedule team meetings only during “core hours” of the day. Or you may want to think about what kinds of meetings can be held virtually and which need to be in person. Reflect about what other changes in communication practices might be useful.