Line managers are a vital piece of the flexible working jigsaw and need to be recognised when they get things right.
I’ve been reflecting on what actually works to shift the dial on flexible working. We all know that it’s something a lot of people want. There are legions of reports on the business benefits. The big thing in the middle is ‘culture’ and what makes culture, but people? Legislation can play an important role too, even if only to keep the issue in the public eye and a new campaign aims not only to extend the right to request flexible working by making it a day one right [rather than employees having to wait 26 weeks] but to make flexible working the default in new hiring decisions.
Line managers are also clearly a vital part of culture. It’s great to see senior managers working flexibly and, of course, this encourages those on the level below to do so too, but most people don’t see their senior managers that often. It’s their line manager who they see on a daily basis and whose reactions are crucial. It’s also their colleagues. It is hard not to feel guilty if everyone else is in the office until 7pm and you have to leave at 5.30 to get back for the nursery, even if you know that you will log in later. Actively enforcing working hours might force people to focus more during the working day or make visible unmanageable workloads, but that becomes harder with remote workers who work flexibly.
In any event, what is stopping some managers from promoting flexible working? Is it the complications of managing a flexible team – because it is complicated and focusing solely on the benefits for individuals does not get around this? Managers in the UK often don’t get much training. A CEO said the other day that people are still too often promoted to management positions because they are good workers, good at making money or whatever it is, but not because they are good at managing people.
Managing people is a skill that can be hard to measure compared to, say, reaching money targets. It’s about how your team perceive you, how that motivates you, whether a team feels a sense of collective responsibility, whether people pull together in adversity and have each other’s backs, whether they trust each other and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses – all the relationship things that, in fact, make for a happy family.
I had a manager once who, after losing his job for reasons other than his management skills, was feeling very down. I told him that he had been a very good manager. He was surprised. In what way? He knew all the members of his team, talked to them regularly, understood the things outside their working lives that might be worrying them, talked about his own family openly and most of all was open to discussions about vital things like workloads.
He built a great team and got the best out of them and that sense of being team players remained even after he had gone. Yet he was surprised because no-one had ever rated him for doing that, no one had ever asked his team what they thought about his management style, how much it mattered that he was understanding about their elderly parents going into a home or their childcare arrangements breaking down. None of that stuff counted. Except to those individuals it counted more than anything. It meant they could keep doing their jobs to the best of their ability without the additional stress that comes from an uncaring manager.
We must find ways of measuring and rewarding these kind of skills.