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Who’s Afraid of Flex?

Who’s Afraid of Flex?

Who’s afraid of flex? Your managers.

Most managers were raised in an industrialized, face-time culture. They learned this culture on the job, working for other managers who’d been raised in location-based industries. It’s the only way to lead they ever knew.

It’s not surprising then, that the idea of flexibility gives managers pause. (Well…makes them shake their head, with a firm “Not in my department,” is more like it.)

A manager’s job is to make sure the work gets done.  Anything that threatens that objective is cause for concern.  And many managers simply don’t understand how flex could do anything but hurt productivity.

Manager Concerns
We’ve been training and coaching managers to address these flex challenges.  A big part of training is encouraging managers to share their concerns about flex and challenge the process.  In doing so, we collect a lot of anecdotal about why they’re resistant to flex.  Those issues fall into 10 general categories:

  1. Experiencing a mass exodus: They believe that everyone will want to flex and they’ll be left with conflicts over who has to stay in the office and answer phones.
  2. Processing and evaluating flex requests: How will they decide who can and can’t flex.  What criteria should they use? What if it’s not perceived as fair? How do they say no?
  3. Understanding stakeholder impact: They’re worried about the end product.  How will flex impact work flow, capacity, and service capabilities?
  4. Dealing with performance anxiety: They’re not sure how they’ll know if someone is really working or how they’ll measure productivity.
  5. Building relationships: They’re worried about relationships, collaboration, and idea exchange. How will their team stay connected?
  6. Responding to emergencies: How will they respond to a crisis if everyone isn’t in the office? What if the right person isn’t there to respond?
  7. Addressing location-based limitations: They need certain employees on-site to open the mail, answer the phones, do quality checks, respond to service calls, etc.  How will they offer flex to that employee?
  8. Using technology: They’re afraid technology will add extra layers and cost to the process.  Everyone will have to adapt to difficult new systems or remote employees will be unreachable.
  9. Losing control: It’ll be like herding cats. They believe it’s going to increase their workload, trying to keep track of it all.
  10. Expending social capital: They’re afraid to be pioneers.  What if they fail? Will senior management have their back?

The Solution: Manager Training
These fears are significant, and they’re getting in the way of progress.  Fortunately there’s a rather straightforward way to address the challenge:  manager training. It’s a necessary tactical step in any strategic flexibility plan. Companies that don’t provide training have a much harder time building organization-wide support for flex and, in turn, fail to reach their stated business goals for establishing a flex program in the first place.

Yet few companies offer flex management training. According to a 2011 WorldatWork survey on workplace flexibility, 12% of “developing” flex organizations (where the flex program is informal only) and 37% of companies with an “established” flex culture (where flex is considered a strategic tactic) train their managers.

Perhaps that’s why so many organizations continue to face stumbling blocks when it comes to implementing flex.  In a 2010 survey released by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, half of all federal agencies cited management resistance as a barrier to telework.  And in a 2009 global benchmarking study from New Ways of Working, organizational culture, manager concerns and fear of change were cited as the top three barriers to the development of alternative workplace programs.

When it comes to managing flexible teams, training is key.  It’s how we learn new skills, adjust to change, and share best practices.  Training helps managers fill in the gaps in their own management styles and it gives them the skills they need to support the program.

(Read Manager Training in Four Steps to find out what should be included in manager training programs.)


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