Although our research at CEB, now Gartner, has found that organizations with flexible working programs realize an increase in employee engagement and productivity, the stigma against flexible work persists and employees often fear that their colleagues and managers will question their competence or commitment if they ask for parental leave or remote work options.
In a recent piece at the Harvard Business Review, Joan C. Williams and Marina Multhaup offered some suggestions for how to mitigate this challenge. The authors recommended that workforce policies be designed in a way that is wholly inclusive, from parents who have to pick up their children from daycare to employees who have to tend to their sick grandparents. Although people’s reasons for needing flexible work arrangements can differ, they write, organizations should adopt a clear set of principles for managing that flexibility and ensure that it is fairly applied regardless of the reason.
Williams and Multhaup’s ideas for creating an inclusive policy are sensible, but the problem remains that organizations often don’t promote their flexible work policies effectively. In fact, our research indicates that flexible work practices are underutilized even by employees who value flexibility. In order to better enable workers to take advantage of these options, managers need to create an environment where they are not only used, but encouraged.
Create a Flexible Team Charter
Failing to effectively manage flexible or virtual teams can lead to decreased productivity, siloed work environments, and miscommunication. To better prepare for an effective flexible or virtual collaboration process, managers should establish common criteria for successful flexible working relationships, specifying each individual’s role, defining the team’s objectives, and outlining the decision-making process.
Agree on Communication Etiquette
One of the fears that managers have with flexible workers is that they won’t be able to ensure that employees meet their deadlines because they cannot physically “see” them doing the work. To prevent this, managers should proactively agree on communication etiquette surrounding flexible work policies before the start of the project. It’s important to set clear expectations around response times, ideal behaviors for audio and video conferencing, and disciplined behavior such as active listening.
Establish a Fair Performance Evaluation Process
Our research shows that fewer than 20 percent of employees who want to work flexibly feel that they can take advantage of existing opportunities to do so. Even when a robust flexible work policy exists, employees are often unsure of whether they can take it without being penalized. The reason may be because employees don’t want their managers to think they are uncommitted to the job, which may result in a negative performance evaluation. One way to combat this fear is to proactively promote flexibility to employees, as Adobe and PwC do for new parents returning from leave.
When teams are in a single location, it is easy to review performance as a measure of process (how a task is completed) rather than outcomes (what is completed). When team members work variable hours or from remote locations, the process piece is missing. To ensure that the performance of flexible team members is evaluated fairly, managers should focus on outcomes and review the performance of employees who work a flexible schedule on the same basis as those who work a traditional schedule. Managers should design performance evaluations to reflect only outcome-based questions and provide regular outcome-based feedback.
CEB Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council members can use our flexible work toolkit to help design an effective policy that employees feel empowered to use.