Let’s get something straight, whilst the terms Working Flexibly and Working From Home (or Working From Anywhere) have become conflated during the pandemic, they are not the same thing.

Working From Anywhere (WFA) is a subset of working flexibly, but true flexible working runs much deeper. When your manager tells you that you’re “working flexibly” because you’re sitting with your laptop at your dining table between 9am and 5pm, he or she is missing what flexible working actually is.

Let’s Start With Work From Home (WFH), or Work From Anywhere (WFA)

To save on acronyms, I’m going to use WFA to cover all instances here.

WFA is the abIlity to work from anywhere with an internet connection, most office workers have been doing this for about 13 months now, some have been at home, some have been in the Maldives; but ultimately, they’ve all been working from somewhere that isn’t the office.

Thanks to our COVID enforced experiment in WFA, once offices are a thing again, it seems that most of us want to work from them only between 40 and 60% of the time. Moreover, we only want to go into the office for certain reasons; a big meeting, or a 1:1, some camaraderie, or just a change of scene.

Because of this we’re already seeing major companies cutting down on office space or redesigning their offices to be more like modern co-working spaces rather than traditional offices. We see companies like Nationwide announcing permanent WFA, while PWC have announced a move to permanent Hybrid working. While CEO’s like Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon, who described WFA as an “aberration”, seem hopelessly out of touch.

As a leader, my position with my team was that they should work from wherever they needed to in order to “have the best day, whatever that looks like to you.” That might be completing lots of tasks or meetings, it might also be getting your car serviced, or taking your daughter to the dentist.

So, What Is Flexible Working?

Truly flexible working is not just about where you work, but how you work and when you work. In fact, the only thing that is stipulated by leadership when you’re really working flexibly is the strategy, and the output; other than that, it’s all up to you.

You get to choose when you work, so your occupation can flex (see what I did there?) around the other priorities in your life, be they caring for children, or an elderly relative, a neighbour; volunteering at your local vaccination centre, or being a Special Constable.

Your work life literally flexes around your needs, allowing you to pick both Place and time for you to work. You are no longer required to be at a particular location between two set times for your manager to keep an eye on you. Instead, you can log on when it suits you from wherever you are, and do whatever work needs doing to ensure that your projects get delivered.

Obviously, this is a considerable change for most managers, the larger majority of whom still rely on “seeing” their people working. Even now many managers want to see their people online at specific times, and haven’t made the shift to focussing purely on output.

The Challenge for Managers

The mindset shift required to enable managing without visibility cannot be understated for many managers. Leaders tend to have come up through the organisation in a culture of presnteeism, of being seen to be in the office, and have only known leading and being led in that way.

The focus for their whole career has been on being seen to work and on seeing other people work. This is why many Teams and Zoom calls these days seem to be people taking turns saying words to prove that they are present on the call.

The idea of relinquishing control over people’s time, approach and ways of working are anathema, and yet that is precisely what is being asked of leaders here.

Managers need to provide clear outputs (what is required, by when), and then step back and allow people to find their own way to produce it, right down to the hours that they work on it. If people want to work between 7 and 9am, and then again between 11 and 3, and then again between 9 and 10:30pm, well, that’s up to them.

Similarly, if they want to do the first stint from a Starbucks, the second stint from an office space, and the third from their couch, well, guess what, that’s up to them too,

the key thing here though, is to set the output; managers need to be completely clear what they want, when they want it, if there are any specific requirements, and why. If managers aren’t getting back what they want or need, then the parameters weren’t defined well enough.

So, What Can Managers Do?

There’s some practical steps that leaders can take to help make the transition and to support their teams in working flexibly:

  • Make the Why Clear — People need to understand not just why they are doing what they’re doing (i.e., how it connects with wider strategic goals), but also why they in particular are being asked to do it. Knowing both things helps a team member position their work in the big picture, which is both motivating and allows them to make decisions. It also provides a sense of place that seems from knowing that they bring something unique to the team.
  • Make the What Clear — You need to be clear in your required output, if you’re looking for a slide then you obviously need to be clear what the slide should be about, but we need to go beyond that. Should it have anything specific on it, do you want the information displayed in a particular way, when do you want the slide by… these things need to be made clear. If you have very specific requirements, and you don’t make very specific requests then what you get back won’t meet your requirements, that’s on you. Better yet, however, don’t have specific requirements; if your team member understands the why behind the what, they should be able to put the two together themselves.
  • Have Short, Regular Catch-Ups — Keep your catch-ups either with the team or with individuals down to 30 minutes, ideally once a week, but maybe a couple of times if things are moving fast. Focus on how things are going, do they understand what is being asked of them, are they encountering any blockers, don’t focus on the how unless you are invited to; you must be a mentor and coach. Going through a list of their to-dos and asking if they’ve done them yet is a poor use of their time and yours.
  • Implement Passive Tracking — Use collaborative tools to put things where you can see them if you need to. Putting the PowerPoint deck into a SharePoint allows you to see the slides coming together and gives you the comfort that the work is getting done without having to constantly hound your team. Using tools like Planner or Trello can let you see what tasks are outstanding, who has then, and their status, across your projects. If you have clear why and clear what, then you should see it coming through without having to pound people with messages asking if they have completed the work yet.
  • Keep Meetings in Core Hours — Your people may be choosing to work flexibly, but that doesn’t mean that you can pull them into calls any time of day, and they can’t pull people into calls whenever they like, either. Meetings should be called during core hours only, just because people are at home and can be online any time, that doesn’t give you the right to pull them on outside “normal” office hours. If people understand the why and the what, and they need to come to your meeting, then they will make it work, or they will ask for a reschedule.

Focus on the Output

Flexibility is about giving people the space to set their agenda while still completing the work, the output; and as a leader in a flexible environment, that’s where your focus needs to be.

Some of what I’ve said above, particularly around meetings might seem a little skewed towards the team member; for example, they get to choose their hours, but you can only call on them during office hours. The payback is happy, engaged team members, and completed high-quality work.

(Which, but the way, is what we’re actually here for, not just to be ‘seen’ for 8 hours)

One last thing to remember though, don’t get too hung up on the output being exactly what you were expecting or what you would have done, especially if you didn’t specify the what to a very high degree. You need to focus on the message and keep an 80/20 mindset, but that’s true all the time, not just in a flexible environment.

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