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Common Manager Concerns

Evaluating flex requests, considering employee need, and how to say no.

What are managers most worried about when it comes to managing flexible work teams? We’ve started a running list of manager concerns from our workshops. They range from “How do I know if employees are really working?” to “Not all of our employees are equipped with laptops and smartphones.” And everything in between.

Managers share real, legitimate concerns about how to stay connected, monitor performance and retain team cohesiveness. Changing when and where people work feels like a direct challenge to their #1 goal: to get work done!

No wonder manager resistance remains one of the biggest barriers to a successful flexible work culture. That’s why training is such a critical component of any flex program.

Take a look at a couple of questions we’re frequently asked and how we address these concerns:

Q: How should I judge flex requests made by my employees?

Subjective, mushy, gushy “HR stuff” makes managers uncomfortable. And flex requests feel subjective. Plus, managers worry about a sense of entitlement underlying the request.

We tell managers: Consider the request in the same way you would consider any other business decision.

1) Needs of your business: resources, coverage, capacity, impact on customers, etc.

2) Internal customers needs: How will flex impact the teams we interface with or serve internally? You may want to meet with these internal stakeholders and discuss how to incorporate flex into your workflows, reporting mechanisms, approaches to crisis management, etc.

3) Requirements of the position: If the position requires the employee to be onsite to do product inspections or greet visitors at the door, a telework arrangement may not be possible. But get creative. Could you have the receptionist work from home one day per week, when they can consolidate expense reports, phone calls, or bookkeeping duties (that are also part of their job) into one day?

4) Employee performance: Is the employee meeting minimum performance requirements? What are your other performance concerns? Is he or she a poor communicator? often distracted? chronically late with deadlines?

5) Resource restrictions: Do you have technology that would enable the team to work flexibly? How can you work around it in low-tech ways? (E.g. conference calls instead of instant messaging, a spreadsheet on the share drive instead of team collaboration software.)

6) Team needs. Ask everyone on the team to submit a flex request so that you can evaluate the impact together and devise solutions to minimize disruption and maximize team performance.

Above all, be committed to saying “yes” whenever possible.

Get creative. Your first inclination might be to say “no” but with a little creativity, you may be able to implement new work processes, implement client teams, forward the office phone, or make other changes that will enable you to say “yes.”

And don’t forget that employees have great ideas. Enlist them to help you overcome your concerns and ensure a smooth transition to flexibility.

Q: What if one person needs more flexibility than another?

Evaluating an employee request for flexibility based on their personal reason, or need, is dangerous. It opens you up to legal concerns and morale issues.

When you ask employees why they want to flex you ….

  1. Risk showing preferential treatment for one employee’s work/life concern over another. This is the quickest way to build resentment and send your employees packing.
  2. Will have a harder time denying a request. The employee may have a legitimate challenge, and you won’t want to be the bad guy.
  3. Expose the company to discrimination claims if you accept or deny requests based on age, religion, or caregiver status. (For example, “You have young kids at home, so you can’t telecommute.”)

Instead, make your flex decisions “reason-neutral.” In your materials, training, and internal marketing efforts, state clearly that employees have a right to request and should not offer up their reason to their manager. And reinforce to managers that they should deter employees from divulging that information when discussing their request.

Consider the following scenario:

Employee A is told by her physician that she’s a borderline diabetic that needs to start eating right and working out. She decides to request a flex schedule to accommodate these changes. But instead of sharing her pre-diabetic status, she mentions instead that she wants to start working out.

Employee B just found out his child has a disability and will need to be spending time at therapy and doctors appointments.

As a manager which request would you be more inclined to grant if you were looking at it subjectively? Are you prepared to tell Employee A that her health doesn’t matter?

That’s why reason-neutral requests are so important.

Of course that’s hard. Employees may be accustomed to talking about their personal lives, so you may already suspect the reason for their request. We’re used to sharing a certain amount of personal information in the workplace, such as what our symptoms are when we call in sick or that we’re training for a triathlon.

But when it comes to flexibility requests, it’s important that managers discourage employees from sharing this information. Managers need to reiterate that the basis for their decision will be business-based.

Q: How do I say “no” to a flex request?

Have a business-based reason for turning down a request and the conversation will be easier. Explain that your decision was made objectively based on the following criteria (list them). Don’t rush the conversation. Be empathetic and listen.

Be open to compromise, if possible—maybe you can start with a three-month trial. You could propose an alternative to the flex arrangement they requested if something different would work within your business constraints.

If you do have performance concerns, this would be a good time to have a frank conversation (non-disciplinary) with the employee. Often performance issues don’t warrant formal documentation but may make you uncomfortable with a flex arrangement.

Suggest that if the employee can demonstrate improvement, then they’ll be eligible. Or go the other way. You’ll say yes to the request for now, but stipulate that you need to see improvement of the arrangement will be terminated by (set a date). Be very clear about the behaviors you need to see change.

Offer to revisit the request at a later date.