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Do You Offer as Much Flexibility as You Say You Do?

Do You Offer as Much Flexibility as You Say You Do?

by Nate Dvorak and Rachael Breck

Story Highlights

  • A culture of flexibility requires three things to succeed
  • Flexibility fails when the unwritten rules don't match the written ones
  • Managers can demonstrate what kinds of flexibility are acceptable

Has your organization caught the flexibility bug?

According to Gallup's recent State of the American Workplace report, flexibility is one of the top perks that employees say they would change jobs for.

So, it's no surprise that many organizations are increasing their flex-related perks, like remote working, floating desk spaces, flexible hours, unlimited vacation -- or even just a flexible dress code. Flexibility seems to be particularly important around certain times of the year -- summer vacation, back to school, Thanksgiving, etc.

And the benefits for employers go beyond attracting the best people. According to Gallup's recent burnout study, employees are 43% less likely to experience high levels of burnout when they have a choice in what tasks to do, when to do them and how much time to spend on them.

And yet many organizations are discovering that flexibility isn't just a plug-and-play solution.

Some organizations have reversed flexible policies due to unintended consequences, for example, when IBM, Yahoo, Bank of America and Aetna reduced or eliminated telecommuting in recent years.

And yet many others have flexible policies that simply never get used because their culture implicitly directs employees away from taking advantage of those perks.

So where do the promised benefits of flexibility often go wrong -- and how can leaders make it go right?

When Flexibility Won't Work

Naturally, there are certain roles that limit options for flexibility. Perhaps employees have to receive inbound calls or be physically present at a front desk.

Leaders and managers need to remember that not all policies work for all positions. In these cases, transparency with employees on what is expected of them and how that impacts options for flexibility is key.

Beyond those situations where flexibility isn't an option, one of the major barriers to flexibility is an organization's culture.

Your culture defines the way work actually gets done at your organization. Flexibility can fail when the organization's culture doesn't match up with the official policies. Consider the following unspoken, unwritten rules of some work cultures:

  • If the manager doesn't see you at your desk, you aren't working.
  • If you show up later or leave earlier than the rest of the team, you lack a strong work ethic or commitment -- which could affect your performance review.
  • Awards and recognition are designed mostly for in-office workers.
  • Remote workers on a conference call are often forgotten about.
  • "Hard work" is measured as hours on the clock rather than projects accomplished or outcomes achieved.
  • Important conversations happen in the hallways and common areas, leaving out anyone working from home.
  • Promotions, raises and advancement are more likely to go to those who keep a certain schedule and don't take time off.

As you can see, it's easy for any organization to add flexibility to their policies, while still maintaining an unspoken culture that incentivizes inflexible, traditional workplace practices.

Flexibility can fail when the organization's culture doesn't match up with the official policies.

Not only does this break down trust within the organization (as leaders' words don't match their actions), it can create "buyer's remorse" for new employees who realize that the organization doesn't really believe what they have printed in their recruitment materials.

The solution involves not forcing flexibility into an inflexible culture, but rather creating a culture that commits to and supports flexibility.

How to Create a Flexible Work Culture

You can have a high performing and flexible workplace that gives highly talented people the opportunity to work with autonomy in a way that works best for them.

While too much autonomy can be confusing for employees, there's a lot leaders and managers can do to encourage a more independent culture.

Gallup research has shown that a culture of flexibility requires three things to succeed:

  • regularly discussing and agreeing on clear goals and expectations

  • an outcomes-focused approach to performance

  • allowing flexibility in how the work gets done

Gallup analytics finds that only 50% of all employees say they clearly know what is expected of them at work. It is hard to imagine any flexible, agile or highly matrixed organization succeeding when one in two employees doesn't know what they are supposed to be doing!

For this reason, a flexible culture requires frequent manager conversations about an employee's short-term and long-term goals:

  • Short-term goals: Managers need to make sure employees have a clear understanding of their goals and deadlines. Employees also need to be able share roadblocks, challenges or nagging questions, so they can work independently and efficiently.
  • Long-term goals: Managers need to understand the dreams and desires of their employees. Do they want to advance? Do they want to move? Are they stressed about balancing work and life? Are they maintaining a strong internal brand? Managers are responsible for helping employees develop a plan that makes them feel like they have a future at your organization.

Managers are essential to delivering a culture that supports official policies and programs, rather than undermining them.

Managers also shape team perceptions about flexibility as well. Managers can make public, visible decisions about flexibility that show the team what is and isn't acceptable -- and what counts as high performance.

And, of course, how managers use their own flexibility says a lot to their team about expectations. Managers may need to explore being a little more flexible in their work in order to broaden the horizons of a team that may be afraid to try new things.

For example, a manager may work from a coffee shop once a month or let their team know explicitly when they are using a flexible holiday option.

A flexible culture requires frequent manager conversations about an employee's short-term and long-term goals.

Additionally, a flexible culture requires understanding each person as a unique individual, rather than assuming that everybody should reach a goal the exact same way.

That means managers need to fully understand each team member's strengths and trust that, when given freedom, they are able to get their work done.

For example, a manager should talk with an employee about what tasks they feel most comfortable with, what they feel they've mastered, and where they feel they need more support, structure, or partnerships, rather than less.

In other words, a flexible culture requires an emphasis on strong relationships.

A flexible culture requires understanding each person as a unique individual, rather than assuming that everybody should reach a goal the exact same way.

Continual communication, understanding, and respect are the necessary foundations on which flexible perks, like working from home, make sense and support productivity.

When the unspoken culture aligns with the official policy, employees can confidently take advantage of perks and integrate them into their lives without guilt or confusion.

Leaders need to put thought into both a flexible policy and a flexible culture, and they need to make sure their managers are prepared to support and reinforce it.

Is Flexibility Part of Your Culture? A Look at the 5 Drivers of Culture

Gallup has identified five core drivers that influence, in any organization, how work gets done -- that is, what your culture really is. Often "bad cultures" occur when some of these drivers are presenting inconsistent messages to your employees.

Let's take a look at these five drivers in light of our discussion on flexibility:

  1. Leadership and Communication: Do leaders share stories about the value of flexibility? Do they explain why flexibility matters in terms of human value and business strategy? If leaders don't live it, why would managers?
  2. Values and Rituals: It is OK to provide some stability and structure to make flexibility work. For example, a Monday morning meeting that everyone must attend. Rituals like this help employees plan their week more easily.
  3. Human Capital: Is your specific style of flexibility explained to potential candidates so that you attract candidates who can appreciate and reinforce the culture you want to create?
  4. Work Teams and Structures: If flexibility is a new value for your organization, consider the ways in which the teams are built and function. Do they implicitly work against flexibility?
  5. Performance: Is performance measured by outcomes? Are employees coached and supported in a way that increases their independence over time?

As you can see, if flexibility is communicated through only some of these drivers, but not all, you are going to have misalignment, friction, and confusion.

Clearly, if you throw flexibility into an inflexible culture, there's a strong chance you will do more harm than good.

Rather than an add-on, flexibility is a big step for a traditional organization. Getting it right begins with a thoughtful, intentional, and comprehensive review of your current culture and the culture you want to have.

Gallup can help you introduce flexibility to your culture in a way that employees clearly understand:


Rachael Breck is a Performance Team Lead at Gallup.

Ryan Pendell contributed to this article.

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