The Management Challenges of Flexible Working

Wednesday, November 20, 2013 - 21:05

By Leon Gettler

Flexible work requires a completely different style of management. How can you tell whether an employee is really working when you can’t see them? How do you measure performance if two people are sharing one job? Should employees on flexible work plans be evaluated in the same way as regular employees? All these are important questions.

Flexible work covers many different types of work. There’s working from home, working from the office but also from home at night, working compressed hours, working from an alternative work site, contract work or consulting, job sharing, part time work or casual work of various kinds.

But as Brian Amble says at Management Issues, managers no longer have a choice. Flexibility is here right now and the momentum towards more flexibility will increase as people try to balance work with busy lives.

He cites research initiated by Microsoft which found that increasing flexibility and mobility would make the physical office – a container in which information and knowledge is processed – a thing of the past. And poor management is likely to be exposed when flexible work is introduced.

“‘For years, managers have been used to managing people simply by watching over them,’ said Peter Thompson, director of the Future Work Forum and project leader for the report. ‘With the rise of flexible working, that style will have to change or else we face the prospect of managers holding back the tide of flexible working like a modern day King Canute.’”

Thompson goes on to say that communication, trust and objective setting are critical for managing remote workers, both now and in the future and that managers have to start measuring outputs rather than when the work is carried out.

A paper done by the Queensland branch of the Australian Institute of Management says that managers need to be trained to manage flexibility. They would need higher levels of organisation, better performance management techniques, top skills in negotiation and communication, the ability to handle complexity and a strategic ability to see the long term benefits even if short term costs are looming large.

“Especially when implementing large-scale workplace flexibility, managers will need skills in change management. In addition, managers may be under constraints when implementing flexible work arrangements, and may need specific resources to implement flexibility effectively,” the paper says. “It is important that managers have the skills to ensure that flexible jobs deliver benefits for both the employer and the employees: this means managers need to understand that not all employees have the ability, confidence or power in the workplace to negotiate their work arrangements.”

According to a recent AIM VT survey, 57 per cent of workers said flexible work arrangements kept them at organisations and 54 per cent said inflexible work arrangements stopped women from taking on senior management positions.

Guidelines for managers created at Rice University in Texas says managers need to create a working plan with the employee working flexible hours. That document will have to spell out the hours and days that they work, the responsibilities that are shared, how contingencies will be handled and a timetable for reviewing the arrangements. With people working off-site, they need to ensure the site is appropriate, has all the necessary technology and has been checked over by the Human Resources Department. They also have to establish ground rules about child care. With job sharing, managers have to support the arrangement, anticipate a transition period when employees might need extra support in the beginning, respect the schedule, make sure others respect it and treat all job sharers equally.