In my work with companies, I sense that many managers want to offer employees the kinds of flexible work arrangements that would allow them to spend more time with their families. However, many managers can’t see their way through their companies’ human resources policies and short-term business imperatives to know how to respond to such requests – let alone be proactive in suggesting possibilities to their people.
Here are a few guidelines for well-meaning supervisors who want to provide for more flexibility:
FOCUS ON WHAT, NOT HOW OR WHEN. With today’s information technology, more and more work can be done in places other than the office and outside of traditional business hours. This is particularly true of knowledge work. However, many managers are stuck in thinking that their employees need to be in the office to be fully productive. While office time is important, both for formal meetings and for informal collaboration, the fact is that most knowledge workers can get by with doing roughly 30% of their work from home (or other locations) and at nontraditional work times. Between the Internet, smartphones and helpful programs like FreeConferenceCall.com, Google Docs and join.me, workers can effectively collaborate at a distance and remain accessible to clients and management.
GET BETTER AT MEASURING PERFORMANCE. For managers to become comfortable with employees working more flexibly, they need to get better at measuring performance. When they don’t have a good handle on output, they rely on generalized impressions of people’s work, or worse yet of the people themselves.
The key is to move beyond the dreaded forms filled out each year and make performance evaluation current and continuous. Employees should submit regular progress reports, with any special arrangements regarding flexibility contingent on their upholding required performance levels. Frequent sessions between supervisor and employee should focus on goal-setting and coaching as much as on reviewing accomplishments. Managers are extremely busy, but there are few things that deserve your time more than creating a system that allows you to evaluate performance fairly.
DELEGATE, COACH AND LET YOUR PEOPLE EARN TRUST. Another great investment that pays off in the long term is spending the time to develop employees to the point where they can work more autonomously in the medium and long terms. Providing coaching, feedback and resources to help people not show up at the office might seem counterintuitive – and it will surely be extra work, at least for a while. But the rewards of higher productivity and greater mutual trust are simply too big to miss.
SERVE AS A WORK-FAMILY ROLE MODEL. Finally, you can help employees struggling with work-family balance by showing them how it’s done. Make it a habit at work to mention your family activities and ask your employees about theirs. Over time, these conversations can change the culture in your workplace from a typical one in which family time is to be hidden to one in which the whole person is valued and the needs of families are legitimized.
For the most part, HR policies in large organizations are designed to simplify the task of managing employees. But sometimes, in their tendency to focus on risks and avoid worst-case abuses, these policies only serve to discourage supervisors from doing what makes the most sense. By giving employees more control over the “work” part of their lives, direct supervisors can help them achieve the balance they need to meet both work and family commitments. In the short term, these policies can maintain and even enhance performance. In the long term, they can attract and retain top talent – the kinds of professionals who do their best work when they know they’re valued as people with full lives.
(Scott Behson is a professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He runs the “Fathers, Work and Family” blog, and writes about work and family issues for The Good Men Project.)