Remote working: why a flexi work policy alone won’t cut the mustard for most employers

Flexible work, particularly homeworking, needs to be supported by more than just policy. It is about employers doing things differently. Management expert Jane Sparrow gives some tips.

Flexible working is undoubtedly an evolutionary leap in defining what a modern workforce represents, but for many employers, it represents another thing to manage, to control and to set expectations around. It represents paperwork, process and policy and all the other headaches that come with employment and therein lies the key issue around flexible working. So much of the focus and energy is spent on the procedure itself rather than the attitudes and behaviours required to embed a flexible working culture in a way that can actually drive performance and benefit business.

Managing flexible workers is all about doing things differently. Flexible working can be fast, effective and high-performing for many (but not all) employees, but only if it is managed correctly and supported by leadership. If you’re an employer, here are some key things to think about in order to develop a positive, flexible working culture.

1) More than just lip service and paperwork

How serious are you, really, about flexible working for your employees? What does your organisation mean by flexible working? Having a policy in place doesn’t cut the mustard if you haven’t carefully thought about the attitudes and behaviours that will be required across the organisation to make that policy successful in practice. Business leaders have a duty to set the cultural tone and expectation for what ‘flexible’ means for their own organisation and to ensure every employee, no matter how, when and where they work, is supported by a manager committed to helping them achieve their best performance – and who trusts them to do it.

2) Time and confidence to deal in case by case

In some organisations, working from home can only be successful on a case by case basis. For some employees, working from home is a sensible option e.g. lawyers, who often need to review detailed case documents. For others, e.g. personal or executive assistants, for whom being the eyes and ears of the organisation is a key part of their role, it isn’t so appropriate. We also need to think about people’s personal and behavioural preferences – do they thrive in a team environment or is their productivity boosted when they’re able to really focus and work alone? Are they easily distracted or perhaps at risk of overworking and burn-out if left to their own devices too much? By having the confidence to have open and honest conversations with employees, managers can gain richer understanding of how and why flexible working may – or may not – be right for individuals and for the business.

3) Recreating the ‘water-cooler’ moments

When Yahoo announced it was axing its flexible working policy last year it apparently stated that not only did working from home “..compromise speed and quality..” but that, “…some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings”. Homeworking, by its nature, means employees will miss out on these little interactions. Recreating these small and personal interactions virtually is vital when it comes to keeping remote employees thriving and performing. For example, picking up the phone to check in with someone and see how they are enjoying a piece of work, instead of calling when you have to or because you need something, are just some of the little ways managers can actually have a big impact and keep remote workers connected. And this goes both ways! Employees also need to demonstrate commitment to keeping in touch and collaborating with colleagues. It’s key if relationships aren’t to become transactional.

4) Ensuring the right tools for the job

Once the belief and behaviours pillars are in place, there is an important ‘tools’ element that needs investment. What tools are required to enable employees to work flexibly and productively? This requires an understanding of their ‘remote’ working environment and ensuring sufficient connectivity. It also requires consideration of what other technology may be valuable in keeping remote workers connected e.g. video conferencing, remote access to the intranet or improved mobile devices.

Many successful, flexi-working cultures are proof that performance does not need to be compromised just because some employees choose to, or have to, work in a different way to their office-based colleagues. Flexible work is not a black and white, right or wrong decision. Ultimately, like most things in life, it’s about balance and I believe a good manager will know if flexible working is right for their employee, or not, because they don’t just work with their employees, they know them, too.

Instead of getting tied up in policy and political knots, companies should be investing in line managers and leaders who know and understand what it takes to help people perform and working to upskill those that don’t. As one of my clients says: ‘Our policy is for individuals for use good judgement. Nothing more.’ However, that relies on a shared understanding of what good judgement looks like. Then and only then can they make the best possible judgement about someone’s request for flexible working. And who knows…it might just be the key that unlocks even stronger performance, commitment and loyalty from them.

*Jane Sparrow is an expert facilitator, business consultant, performance coach, impactful speaker and author of The Culture Builders; Leadership Strategies for Employee Performance. For more tips and advice for managers as well as information about The Culture Builders visit


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