THE BLOG

Workplace Flexibility: Engaging Managers for Success

01/22/2014 05:59 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2014

From "Why women can't have it all" to "Lean In" to the recently released Shriver Report, flexibility is cited as one of the critical workplace solutions for keeping both women and men engaged and thriving at work. Yet, to date, few companies have truly embraced this new way of working and there has been little direction on how to accomplish the goal of cultivating a flexible and agile workplace culture.

I wrote about moving from the "why" to the "how" of flexibility over 3 years ago, noting that the business case for workplace flexibility was quite compelling but progress was slow. In conversing with many colleagues about moving workplace flexibility forward, I found two kindred spirits in Kyra Cavanaugh of Life Meets Work and Kathy Kacher of Career/Life Alliance Services. Together, we decided to take on one of the greatest challenges that we had identified through our work with organizations: the resistant or reluctant manager.

Research showed us that very few companies were dedicating time and resources to training managers about the benefits of flexibility and providing them with the tools they needed to successfully lead flexible teams. We wanted to change that by developing a multi-faceted model and documenting the results, to provide a roadmap for other organizations to follow.

The National Workplace Flexibility Study engaged managers from three diverse organizations, representing different industries, through a process of training, support and coaching to empower them with the tools and skill sets they needed to maintain their teams' performance while working flexibly. The results showed the impact of this process, not only on the managers themselves, but on the employees and the organizational culture as well.

"We know that managers have a lot of concerns about workplace flexibility. They worry about availability, fairness, workload, and performance issues," said study partner Kathy Kacher. "This study shows that, with the right tools, those fears can be overcome. In almost every case, managers reported no negative impact on the business after they built a plan with their employees for how they'd work together in a flexible environment."

Here are the Top 3 Takeaways from the study:

1. WORKPLACE FLEXIBILITY CAN IMPROVE TEAM COMMUNICATION AND PRODUCTITY
Managers who participated in the study and developed a Flex Team Blueprint reported improved team communication, team interaction, productivity and even customer service. In fact, 98% of managers identified no negative impact of workplace flexibility on their business.

2. ENGAGING MANAGERS IS CRITICAL TO THE SUCCESSFUL IMPLEMENTATION OF WORKPLACE FLEXIBILITY
Issuing a policy isn't enough; managers need to be trained on how to lead differently. They need to understand how to evaluate requests, develop a team strategy and be given coaching on how to manage the dynamics of a flexible team, and encouraged to share best practices with peers. By following this process, managers adopted flex as a business strategy. Flexibility is now "on the table" for managers and teams who participated in the study rather than being negotiated "under the table."

3. THE STUDY PROCESS PROMPTED IMPORTANT DISCUSSIONS BETWEEN MANAGERS AND THEIR TEAMS
After working together as a team to plan how they would communicate, stay connected, ensure performance and embrace technology while working flexibly, managers reported improvements in team functioning and performance. They also reported feeling more comfortable about team members working flexibly and felt more capable of effectively managing the flexible nature of their team.

The study also observed shifts in employee experience and reported perceptions of organizational culture, such as the importance of face time and 24/7 availability. Considering the brief 3-month duration of the study period, we would hope to see more sustained changes as flexibility becomes truly embedded as a new way of working, and we are optimistic about the lasting impact of the study on the three organizations.

I encourage you to visit our website http://www.workplaceflex.org to review the report and watch videos of the managers who participated in the study. You'll hear, in their own words, about their original reluctance to participate, their thoughts on the process, and most importantly, the outcomes for their teams.
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The National Workplace Flexibility Study was sponsored by three participating organizations, Ryan LLC, MedImmune, and Minnesota Department of Transportation, and conducted by research partners Life Meets Work Inc., Boston College Center for Work & Family, and Career/Life Alliance Services Inc.