Flexible working and accountability

Copenhagen

The past month had been under the Scandinavian theme for my family as we visited Denmark and Norway. When you are in a place like Copenhagen, and you work in HR, it is hard not to reflect on the work-life balance Scandinavia is known for. On top of that, I have attended a meeting on the Flexible working. I liked how it was positioned- the company knew they needed to relocate their staff to a new city, so the problem sparkled creativity and so they started working on the flexible working strategy way before the actual move.

There was a lot discussed at the panel, and from various perspectives. The opening question being – is flexibility that answer to all?

We know that flexibility is being discussed, we‘ve heard or experienced the benefits of it and have  seen some of the challenges.

However, the two aspects I would like to particularly focus on are accountability and accessibility:

  1. Flexibility and accountability.

Becki Taylor, one of the panel’s organisers, said:

“ Where I’ve seen it work well it is the managers being able to manage in terms of output, not the hours”.

This for me is probably the most important aspect of flexibility. I believe that the flexibility works really well where there is an accountability and capability. Flexibility is just exposing the health of an organisation- if we can apply it and it works – we are doing the right things- if we apply and it does not work, we may want to look for the root cause, but that will not be the flexibility itself.

I used to work for a company that was introducing a broad flexibility. How much better it was to have the conversations with managers where I could skip the part about “what is the policy about core hours” and get to the bottom of the problem. Someone was coming late? Someone was calling in sick? How great it was to have a conversation about the root cause rather than symptom and so not to talk about warnings and triggers. We could talk about performance, motivation and manager’s personal challenges. Hours as such taken off the table, we could discuss one’s performance, manager’s confidence and areas of focus. This really provided us with so much more meaningful perspectives and attention to the real desired outcome.

Those things don’t come without challenges. As one of the panellist said-   there are challenges around roles that can’t have this level of flexibility and hence causing some sense of fairness issues (even if well understood), meetings and accountabilities, trust and maturity. We know that there is nothing like “personal touch” and face to face communication.

The flexibility can take various forms:  working from home, working in a café’, starting in the morning, having a break and finishing in the evening, arriving to the office after the school run, or a run, after the rush hour, and returning before the rush hour. It needs to come with self- discipline, self awareness (as individual and organisation), responsibility, and also tools to support that. And yes, there is also health and safety to consider- whereabouts, staying in touch, desk assessment, social well-being. This is also when this magic word trust comes into play.

Some ideas for increased accountability may include:

  • Setting expectations (both ways)
  • Focus and direction
  • I like “The five dysfunction of the team” prescription for accountability which comes from a place of vulnerability, lack of “artificial harmony” and ambiguity, increased commitment and focus on common goals
  • Shared vision and value
  • We are accountable when we care, we care when we are cared for
  • Shared passion*

*Passion may be seen as overrated, but I would not underestimate that. I think that passion can drive high standards among the team. I experienced that years ago when I attended a music school where, unlike in the “normal” school, everyone was doing their homework, putting lots of effort in practicing and being prepared. We were all supportive and “positively” competitive at the same time. There was no hiding away, asking for test to be postponed or cancelled and we were pulling each other’s up rather than down. And I do know something about it, as I was not as talented as most of my peers.

Which brings me to the second point around flexibility-

  1. Flexibility is not only good for carers!

I am a mother myself, and cannot rate enough the importance of having flexible hours to be able to do the school run/ collect the kids/ attend their activity days/ plays etc. And how important this is for me that not only my employer is so understanding, but also my husband’s is. It would have not worked as well, if I was the only one to enjoy that flexibility!

However, there is another side to it too.

Quoting after Ricardo Semler, “The Seven-Day Weekend”:

“Why can we send emails on a Sunday, but can’t go to theatre on a Monday ”?

For many years I was hard on myself for being just average in perusing my hobbies: playing the piano, running, taking pictures or writing posts like this oneJ But quite recently I came across a great podcast that offered some consolation- it is good to engage in many, potentially unrelated activities, as this helps making brain connections, drive ideas and creativity. I strongly recommend to listen to this podcast:https://davidburkus.com/2017/08/0825-how-to-unlock-the-power-of-an-unfocused-mind-with-srini-pillay/

Of course, just giving flexible working won’t increase our level of innovation, but sparking and nourishing interests can.

The trick is to create a culture, where flexibility is not perceived as only for carers. Or because it is a way to retain staff. Flexibility should be part of a wider philosophy, promoting diversity of thoughts, interest and personalities.

Whilst providing full flexibility is not really that easy, braving it can help employers strengthen their both- caring and performing culture. It requires a level of maturity, understanding of impacting factors and ability to adapt and change.

I know how we all love having measures of success and how many organisations claim to be a flexible working employers. So I have thought of my own measures of success on the national scale- and this when the meaning of “rush hour” will change, or when there will be not so obvious difference between half term and not half term traffic….

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