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Flexible working: all you need is… trust

  • Bernadette
  • May 15, 2019

A senior exec once said to me: ‘I can see how agile working is a benefit, but only for experienced staff members who already know what they’re doing’.

Well, some might say learning happens during watercooler conversations or ear-wigging more senior people in meetings or on the phone. But, let’s say a ‘junior’ member of the team is on research duty, why is the office a more productive environment than, say, a home or a library? For me, this comment emphasised a lack of trust in their team as a whole and smacked of closed mindedness.

In an age where agile or flexible working is an expectation and no longer just a benefit, there’s a call for a change in leadership behaviour that not only supports the concept of flexibility, but also advocates it. Certainly more leaders are moving towards this, but there’s still an element of mistrust that holds many back.

A trusting leadership style can sometimes be referred to as ‘servant leadership’ – which creates an environment of mutual respect through power-sharing and collective decision-making. But, on the flip side, there is ‘flexibility stigma’ that can exist among employees; staff fear they’ll be perceived as bunking off by taking advantage of more flexible opportunities – such as working remotely, or even paid parental leave.

So, where does all this leave leaders who want to dip their toes in, but aren’t quite ready to go the whole hog? I would recommend agreeing what flexible working means for your entire team. Lay down what expectations and outcomes you have for each other, before you start. Then give it a trial run. For example, it could start as a drip feed: the ability to leave early one or two days to play sport or collect the kids from school, or even work from home in your active wear once a week. The why isn’t really relevant here; the choice of having that flexibility though, is hugely motivating – and it all pivots around trust. Connectivity will, understandably, be more important than ever in this new semi-virtual community; technology will be your cornerstone.

As a leader, I recommend you be quite open about your own flexible working needs with your team and share your own personal story. I still think there is shame attached to not wanting to sit at your desk 24/7. That needs to change. Of course, going AWOL for days on end and failing to answer emails won’t inspire trust from your cohorts – and, as one ex-boss of mine soon found out, can also lead to a prompt P45.

Of course, there are some definite don’ts for employees too, that would immediately shatter that trust, and with it, the chance of ever working flexibly again. As a mother, I understand the childcare conundrum inside-out. But I’ve also seen people often ‘working from home’ with their kids there too; this isn’t fair on either the child or the boss. Long lunches or a family day out are also obvious nos – although again, I see it regularly. I would advise: be open and say you want to do a specific out-of-work activity and discuss how you will meet the desired outcomes of the team. What’s to lose? Not trust, that’s for sure.

It’s rare to see a set of company values that doesn’t refer to trust – even if that’s not how people behave, in reality. Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, argues that the absence of trust is the first step of a downward spiral. He says: ‘Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. Without it, teamwork is all but impossible.’ Put simply: teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another. Flexible working may seem like a weak position for a leader to be in. Yet, in an atmosphere of trust, it can allow employees to feel valued and strengthen morale.

It’s not just about feelings of trust, motivation and value. But significantly, in-depth research has revealed that these feelings are catalysts to productivity. It’s been proven that more agile work environments raise employee satisfaction, improve health, reduce turnover and therefore have bottom-line benefits.

If you want to find out more about agile leadership, let’s have a chat: bernadette@rosbyconsulting.com

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