When you advocate for something, much of your time is spent trying to understand people’s objections to it (so you can rationally and cheerfully explain why they don’t have anything to worry about).
Often you find that, when you really understand someone’s issue, their problem has shifted a bit. Their stated issue is either a substitute or a misunderstanding of another, perhaps more fundamental worry.
It sounds a bit disingenuous, to look at someone’s argument and say “well, you aren’t actually worried about this – you’re really worried about that.” But when it comes to flexible working we’ve found that many people’s criticisms relate to a very specific change to working life that isn’t really part of flexibility as a concept.
Case in point: when many people say they’re worried about flexibility, what they’re really worried about is uncertainty.
The natural case against uncertainty
Uncertainty is bad for business. From the fluctuations of the stock market to the unpredictability of global events like Brexit, not knowing makes it tough to make good decisions. On a business scale, uncertainty can make the working environment impossible. Uncertainty about responsibilities, scheduling, or resources can cripple the working flow of a business.
And on a micro “office-scale”, uncertainty is equally disruptive. Every white collar professional knows the agony of waiting for “the” email, the email that provides the one point of clarity you need to get back to work on something. Waiting around for “the” email, afraid to push on without it, your project languishing in limbo, wastes time and money (and stresses people out).
So if you think that implementing flexible working is going to increase that uncertainty, then you’d totally be forgiven for being apprehensive about it. But in our experience, flexible working doesn’t increase uncertainty in the workplace, quite the opposite. Employees who are serious about seeing the benefits of flexible working are no more likely to cause uncertainty than any others – in fact, they have a vested interest in making sure everyone knows exactly what’s what.
Why some people think flexibility will contribute to uncertainty
From our discussions with businesses, the argument that flexibility will contribute to an unmanageable amount of uncertainty breaks down into three major pain points.
1. What if people stop showing up when they’re supposed to?
As a representative example of why this isn’t something managers should be worried about, let’s focus on the group with the most understood flexibility needs – parents with young children.
Infants – bless ‘em – are uncertainty machines. It’s tough to interpret their needs, they have no way to communicate them, and they’re not even in full control of their biological functions. Anything can happen. And as children grow, the need for certainty in their lives grows too. Childcare providers, schools and extracurricular activities – all these run to agreed schedules. It seems unlikely that working parents will be cool with more uncertainty in their professional lives. They’ve got plenty of that at home.
Flexibility for working parents means the ability to move away from the standardised 9-5 schedule that they can no longer work to, and the ability to create their own, workable timetable. Once it’s created, they aren’t going to depart from it.
This is our experience with every flexible professional. Nobody likes uncertainty, and nobody worth working with creates it unthinkingly. Experienced flexible workers tend to be excellent time-managers and diligent planners. If you think that flexible working means people when come and go when they choose then you’re half right. But they’ll be coming and going at an agreed schedule, and they won’t suddenly be departing from it.
2. What if people are no longer contactable?
You need someone to help with an urgent business task. But that someone’s not at their desk. They don’t even seem to be in the office. Where are they? You need them to deal with this ASAP!
This is a decidedly… retro concern. Even if you work in the most rigidly traditional office imaginable, it’s unlikely you do most of your requests by tramping over to a colleague’s desk and asking them in person. The majority of intraoffice communication and task management is done digitally. Even if you were to have the conversation in person, you’d probably follow up via email.
All the data indicates that workers are too contactable – that the advent of email and office IM apps like Slack have blurred the lines between work and home to the extent that many people are “always on.”
Not knowing where someone is physically located is hardly a barrier to workplace communication when the primary tools you use to communicate with them live in their pocket. There are plenty of reason to work in an office – collaboration being the main one – but the idea that your desk being intrinsically linked with work is looking a little long in the tooth.
The thing is, we know everyone already knows this. When people are dismissive about flexible working because they don’t like the idea of people coming and going at unmanageable times or suddenly sliding off the grid, what they’re really saying (sorry) is…
3. What if I can’t rely on people to work hard anymore?
It always comes back to this, in the end. What if I can no longer trust people to work as hard as they were working before? What if remote working, or a core hours policy, or scheduling changes, all lead to people slacking off? That’s once they’re out of my sight I’ll be out of their minds?
This is where “certainty” is revealed as a matter of trust. Do you trust the people you work with to do what’s expected of them? If you do trust them, then there’s no need for uncertainty, regardless of what flexible working arrangement you come to. You’ve got nothing to worry about. Trust IS certainty.
If you feel you cannot trust them then you have a whole different – and much greater – set of problems. And to be honest, you should probably start visiting their desk more often (or better yet, finding some way to track their results) because when you’re out of sight you probably ARE out of mind. They don’t need to be working from home to get distracted. They don’t even need the internet. A completely unmotivated individual can find even the humble daydream an unavoidable diversion.
Employees who can be trusted will not create uncertainty, regardless of how they choose to work. Employees who cannot be trusted are causing uncertainty every moment, because you cannot be sure they’re contributing without rigid and frequent enforcement. You have to check up on them all the time. And that is not concurrent with a productive working environment. The problem with trust is the one you need to fix first.
Certainty is good for everyone. It helps people make informed decisions, accurate estimations, reliable models and productive collaborations. But trying to create certainty via the 9-5 is a best ineffective and at worst masking the real problems. If you have an employee that you cannot trust not to create uncertainty when given responsibility for their own working structure, your top priority should be either hiring someone else, or turning that employee into somebody worthy of your trust.
Then when you arrive at their desk to find them gone, you can just… relax. Wherever they are, they’re still working.