Trust and Workplace Flexibility
I recently came across an interesting post on LinkedIn:
You join a new company all eager to contribute so you start sharing things on slack or via email over the weekend.
It will encourage your peers to do the same and work life balance is way too important. Make a note of it and share it when you get to work Monday.
The post is an easy nod-along – we’ve all been there. The over-eager contributor, the colleague who feels compelled to reply in kind to an email received on the weekend, both swept up in trying to do the ‘right’ thing at work even where it impacts our outside-of-work lives.
The trouble is, a message to ‘cease and desist’ sending emails on the weekend is a band-aid on a larger problem.
For every organisation working to increase the availability and uptake of flexible working amongst their employees, there’s an IBM & a Yahoo sending memos requiring their staff to work from the office at all times.
Fear, borne out of a lack of trust.
In practice, flexibility within many organisations in inflexible. Employees trying to work more flexibly face challenges and barriers that make it cumbersome and frustrating. Most often these come down to internal politics – direct or skip managers not approving or ‘allowing’ it; a belief that flexible working is only for people with families; the need to fill out long and complex flexible working arrangement request forms that require rigid adherence to a set schedule of “flexibility.”
And then there’s the kicker: not being trusted to work outside of a manager’s line of sight.
You can’t have flexibility without trust
Managers not trusting their employees to work and produce agreed outcomes to an acceptable standard is a significant leadership problem with wide-reaching implications. It is, of course, a direct roadblock to an employee’s ability to work flexibly, and a contributing hindrance to workplace flexibility. And it’s not just managers lacking trust – colleagues & peers are mistrustful of one another as well.
If flexibility is about enabling and empowering employees to make choices about when, where and how to work that best suits their needs (as appropriate), then discouraging anyone from working outside core hours goes against the very heart of flexibility. It demonstrates that lack of trust: trust in each other, trust in the organisation, and trust in leadership. I don’t trust you to respect my boundaries; I don’t trust the organisation not to let this become the norm; I don’t trust leadership not to expect this of me in turn.
We need a mindset shift
Our attitudes toward work need to fundamentally change.
We need to be better about allowing for differences, improving expectation setting, and clarifying boundaries. ‘If your colleague sends this on the weekend, you aren’t expected to respond in kind.’ ‘It works best for me to complete my work very early in the morning or very late at night, but I don’t expect that works for you.’
We need to improve our ability to manage work, collaboration and relationships asynchronously and from afar. We need to more effectively move to leadership and organisations that measure knowledge work on output and outcomes, and not on the hours spent in a chair or sitting in front of your team’s chat tool.
And we need to increase trust.
Technology is not enough
There’s plenty of technology and tools out there that enable organisations and employees to stay connected, to be able to work from anywhere. Technologies that provide a platform for increasing trust through openness, authenticity and transparency are already in – or being rolled out to – many organisations.
The technology, by and large, is not the problem.
The problem with flexibility is people. It is our organisational culture and legacy ways of managing people that get in the way of flexibility. The good news is that people are also the solution. The bad news is that it isn’t enough to write a flexible work policy and then pat yourself on the back. You’re going to have to roll up the organisational sleeves and make real change.
Put your employees in your circle of trust.
There’s lots of reading available on building trust at work, but there’s a few core principles you’ll need:
- Be honest
- Be open
- Be consistent
- Be accountable
You need to model trust behaviours, as leaders and as employees, as colleagues and as peers. Trust others as you would have them trust you.
Building trust takes time, but it’s worth it – not just for a flexible workplace, but as a foundation for a more effective, inclusive, and collaborative workplace as well.