9 Lives for Women Blog

When Flexibility is the Other “F” Word | November 5th, 2014

A Fast Company article just caught my eye: “Five Things You Need to Know to Manage A Flexible Workforce”. It’s a good article that further clarifies the need for and benefits of flexibility…but it does not offer up clear-cut solutions to the challenges of managing a flexible team.

Don’t get me wrong…I believe that everyone’s work life should include flexibility. It’s the only way that I want to work. And for any woman—or man–who has the additional daily responsibility for overseeing or providing any amount of child or elder care it is the ultimate necessity for intact sanity.

But…a lot of the people who are fortunate to work flexibly—or many of those who are trying to negotiate a less rigid schedule—have no idea what it’s like to manage a team that is coming and going all hours of the day.

I do know what it’s like. Once upon a time I managed a team of 10 women—all mothers of children—from teenagers to tots. My business partner and I thought that we had to walk the talk: we were recruiters who worked with employers to create flexible work opportunities for women. So we gave our team the typical small company flexibility mandate: “We don’t care when you work or how you work…just get the work done.”

The result was a fair amount of chaos and productivity that waned and occasionally waxed. One woman didn’t work on Tuesdays and another never worked past three. Some women arrived in the office as soon as children were on the school bus, and others came in late morning after a doctor’s appointment or two. Half the team worked well into the night, and the other half never checked their email past 5. Some women worked only at home and others practically slept at their desks. In short, we spent a lot of time chasing down our team—and figuring out which hour to hold a staff meeting required an email round robin that lasted for days.

After this experience, I understood why many professionals at big corporations would look at us cross-eyed when we mentioned what we came to realize was the other “F” word. Clearly, flexibility has a bad rap—and not all the criticisms are untrue.

It seems to me there is some middle ground between free-wheeling flexibility and being chained to a desk. How can the boss and all members of the team bank on when, where and how they can reach each other—and when they can expect a response or work to be done? Setting some simple parameters would be a reasonable start:

  • Designate at least one day as the required “in the office” day for the entire team. That’s the day you can always schedule the team meeting.
  • Set flexibility hours for employees working at the office or at home. Tell employees they have to make every effort to schedule their doctor’s appointments, teacher conferences and other personal matters before 10 or after 4. Choose core hours each day that team members should be available and engaged.
  • Keep technology as friend, not foe. The flip side of flexibility is work that never ends. It’s important for your team to know they can unplug without penalty. We all know that “9 to 5” and no work weekends are pretty much extinct, but consider suggesting no emails after 9pm or on Sundays, for example, to promote a work culture that is not “all work, no play”.

These are, again, just three quick and simple suggestions of what parameters could be for flexible, but predictable work. Imagine if a lot of smart people took the time to really think through parameters that would work for both employers and employees. I wish I had thought of these parameters for the companies I managed—and perhaps there are similar solutions for the companies and teams you manage, too.

My point is to think outside the box a bit to keep the flexible work day within reasonable productivity lines. Don’t just say it can’t be done. Don’t say, what about those who have unpredictable travel schedules? What about entire teams that telecommute? What about emergencies or surprise deadlines that immediately require all hands on deck? What about this, that, that and that? I can hear all the questions and objections—and I know that institutionalizing flexibility in a strategic HR kind of way is a difficult (but not impossible) task. My response to all the “what abouts” is…at least try to find some simple parameters that work for your team. No parameters means no structure at all and flexibility that does more harm than good.  —KAS

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Photo credit: www.freedigitalphotos.net/Stuart Miles



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