How to get middle managers to buy into flexible working
There's been a lot of focus of late on the importance of getting senior management buy-in for successful flexible working and diversity policies. While that is important, it is lower down the management pecking order where those policies have to be put into action and it is middle managers who need support in implementing them.
Jane Sparrow, who runs a consultancy specialising in leadership and management, says lot of money is put into leadership programmes for top executives, but it is the middle managers who are dealing with issues day in and day out who need help. She says: “Many people are promoted to management positions because they are good at their jobs, but have no idea how to manage people.” She thinks they need more help and support on issues like how to make flexible working work for a team of people.
Jane, former director of employee communication and engagement at Sony Europe, has just written a book, The Culture Builders, which aims to help managers get the most from their staff, including by implementing flexible working.
The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development's recent report Flexible Working Provision and Uptake finds that one of the biggest obstacles to flexible working perceived by employees is the attitudes of line managers and supervisors.
Large employers also see line management attitudes and line managers’ ability to effectively manage flexible workers as a significant barrier to flexible working. Ironically, a CIPD Employee Outlook survey in January shows middle managers are more than twice as likely as non-managerial staff to feel dissatisfaction about their work/life balance.
Business writer Alison Maitland, co-author of Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work, echoes Jane Sparrow's call for more support to train managers to implement new ways of managing staff. She says most managers don't get much training in managing remote staff.
The new style of management is about creating a new set of rules to make work more efficient, says Maitland. This touches on all aspects of how we currently work, including meetings. “The need to meet face to face will not disappear entirely,” she says, “but not all meetings have to be face to face. A lot of face to face meetings are pointless.”
She says management will need to focus more on how to motivate and inspire staff, on communicating with staff, understanding team members and preventing remote workers from becoming isolated or overworking, which research shows is much more of a danger than the opposite.
A recent forum on paid family leave at the Ford Foundation looked at how best to get middle managers to promote flexible working in their organisations. One issue that emerged was the importance of involving middle managers in articulating the business case for flexible working in their organisation and in shaping flexible work policy. This extends to them voicing their fears about the potential negatives of flexible working for them as well as the positives.
Another suggestion emphasised the importance of seeing flexible working as a team issue and one that the team has to work out rather than being solely the manager's problem. The forum debate heard that it's all about creating a new way of working and, in so doing, a new form of management. For that, everyone needs to be included and everyone needs to be able to have a forum for expressing any concerns. Only by getting those out in the open will the organisation as a whole be able to move beyond them, the forum found.