Managers are often the barrier to flexible work. How can organisations overcome this problem for a happier, healthier workforce?

By David Donaldson

Monday March 2, 2020


Many organisations have flexible work policies in place, but see little uptake. Supporting middle management to do the complicated job of translating policy into practice can make a difference.

There are plenty of good business arguments for flexibility.

A lack of flexibility is a common reason for people leaving jobs, so adjusting practices can be a good way of keeping experienced staff on. If conditions suit their lifestyle, employees will feel more satisfied in their job, and be more loyal and productive. They might even be happy to settle for lower pay in return for more control over when and where they work.

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Some organisations report lower absenteeism, or improvements in diversity.

But while many are already convinced about the case for change, that doesn’t always translate into implementation.

Much of this comes down to culture — some suspect it’s a way of doing less work, or perhaps it’s just for mothers of young children. In some organisations it doesn’t fit very well with how staff have been managed in the past — though perhaps not much creativity has gone into reimagining what the future might look like, either.

A 2016 study conducted by Deloitte in the New South Wales government found “mindset” was a big barrier. There was a limited understanding of what it means to work flexibly and the benefits it brings, they said, as well as a traditional view of the ‘9-5 worker’, and a preference for a compliance-based approach.

Moving to a more flexible setup can also be a lot of work for managers to handle. Research suggests the biggest barrier to rolling flexibility out is middle managers, who might worry about their ability to manage complexity and who feel they lack the time to develop new ways of working while trying to cope with business as usual.

The Deloitte study confirmed manager skills and experience were an issue in NSW. Managers appeared not to have the confidence, skills and tools to arrange and manage flexible working practices in a way that wouldn’t negatively affect their work, they found.

Talk about what works

Organisations have many options for improving uptake of flex.

Finding and sharing case studies can be useful in demonstrating the benefits to skeptical managers, especially if they can be found elsewhere in your own organisation.

The Australian Institute of Management has published a guide to implementing flex which includes short case studies based on interviews from across Australian organisations.

The Chartered Institute of People and Development, the UK’s professional body for HR, has published an extensive report on 10 organisations, one of which is a local National Health Service trust.

Flexibility has made a big difference in retention for the trust:

“Exit interview data showed that lack of flexibility was the number one reason for people leaving and that, although we thought we had flexibility at policy level, at ward level there was resistance.”

The organisation hired a head nurse, who is in charge of workforce planning and training, and interviews everyone who hands in their resignation. Now, if someone is planning to leave because their line manager is not allowing them to work flexibly, an arrangement can be put in place to discourage them from leaving.

The institute offers 10 recommendations for organisations implementing flexible work:

  1. Clarify the benefits of flexible working to the organisation and to individuals, including managers.
  2. Find the compelling hook or business imperative that will gain traction in the organisation.
  3. Dispel myths around what flexible working is and who it is for, share successes and build communities.
  4. Be creative in encouraging a range of flexible working practices for all employees — both in terms of innovative flexible working initiatives and creative ways to build flexibility into job roles that have not traditionally been seen as suitable for flexible working.
  5. Aim to hire flexibly and design the jobs to suit the flexible pattern (and don’t squeeze full-time jobs into part-time hours).
  6. Ensure ongoing access to development and career conversations for flexible workers.
  7. Set the organisational context and consider organisational facilitators and barriers, including creating a supportive organisational culture, underpinned by leadership and HR support.
  8. Gain manager buy-in through communicating benefits and sharing success stories and providing support and guidance.
  9. Consider the facilitators and barriers at manager, team and individual levels.
  10. Measure and evaluate flexible working and learn from trials using quantitative and qualitative measures.

Turning managers from barriers into facilitators

Support for managers is important in making change happen on the ground.

Leadership backing from the very top is a vital condition for success, as with any culture change.

Supportive HR makes a difference. It can be a lot of work to overhaul how a team operates, so HR might need to work with managers to reimagine how roles can be redesigned, or how certain people management functions can be delegated. Training, resources and guidance for managers can be useful too.

Re-examining how performance is judged can help — while time spent in the office is a poor indicator of performance anyway, some managers hold onto it because it’s tangible. Moving to flex can be a good opportunity to change the focus from inputs to outputs.

Such shifts require trust to work — but can also improve trust between manager and employee.

And speaking of trust, informal flex arrangements can often work well, cutting out the need for time-consuming paperwork. An interviewee at an electrical company told CIPD:

“It’s about give and take and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal request. People give a lot to the organisation — if they need an hour off, then give them that flexibility back. We try to encourage and empower managers to have that conversation with their team and encourage their staff to take a bit of time back where they need to.”

But where it’s a permanent arrangement, paperwork is helpful. Writing everything down can clarify the details and ensure the parties have a common understanding of what’s expected.

And remember that it’s not a set and forget exercise — check in regularly to see how it’s working and whether the setup can be improved.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency argues managers have several jobs to ensure staff can access flexibility:

  • Find out what flexibility resources, policies or strategies, already exist in your organisation and familiarise yourself with them;
  • Ensure employees are aware of their rights and responsibilities around flexible work;
  • Provide employees with support and build a team culture based on high performance, trust and outcomes;
  • Ensure communication and resource management are enabled between teams and departments.

WGEA recommends 10 good practices for managers in its manager flexibility toolkit:

Leadership. Consider adopting flex yourself to role model it to staff. Talk about it in positive terms and as a priority.

Team culture. Consult with staff to understand how a shift to flex could work. Ensure there is a culture of trust, transparency, collaboration and goal-orientation in the team. Think about how best to manage communications and meetings when people might work at different times and locations — should all meetings have to be scheduled between 10am and 2pm? Should there be a particular day where everyone is in the office?

Active learning. You probably won’t get everything right from the start, so review how flex is working and figure out how to make it work better, perhaps every few months. Maybe start with a trial period.

Information flow. It can be more difficult to keep everyone up-to-date if you’re not all sitting next to each other in the office, so ensure there are processes in place to facilitate effective communication. Weekly team meetings can take place over teleconferencing, projects kept up to date daily through collaborative software, and sensitive communications handled in person or through videoconferencing.

Resource planning. Planning ahead is a useful strategy to ensure resources are allocated in line with people’s availability. Do it as early as possible, as it can take some time. Be proactive to maintain awareness of your flexible workers’ workloads and ensure they are neither overloaded nor underused.

Achieving confidence in performance. Establish accountability for performance and give staff autonomy to achieve it. Ensure staff receive useful feedback.

Self-management. Permit yourself some time to learn the skills needed to manage flexibility well, and block out time to reflect regularly on how things are progressing.

Stakeholder requirements. Discuss new arrangements with stakeholders, both internal and external — explain why your team is moving to flex and address any concerns they may have. Plan for how to deal with things going wrong with stakeholders, in addition to business as usual. Identify where new arrangements might be beneficial for stakeholders — people working across a broader range of times means there’s someone to contact outside 9-5 hours, for example.

Legal risk management. Find out your legal obligations and actively review your compliance.

Change management. Outline a clear vision for how your team will benefit from flexibility, and listen to feedback from staff — they will probably see problems you don’t. Constructively address negative assumptions and attitudes and ensure that all voices are heard. Give time and encouragement to those experiencing difficulty changing long-held habits and behaviours.

WGEA also has a step-by-step guide for managers responding to a flexible working request, as well as a guide for employees wanting to go flex.

So talk to other managers about what works and what doesn’t. Give it a try, and if it doesn’t work, adjust.

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