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Flexible working pitfalls and how to avoid them

Updated: Sep 15, 2020



The workplace we've gone, or are going back to, will now be very different. Business leaders now need to develop a vision of what their workplace should look like and design systemic, sustainable flexibility into their workforce.

The time to make that flexible working change is now. But the question is; how will you challenge the traditional thinking that still exist in organisations? How will you challenge this systematically at scale?

Now, there may well be a school of thought around letting this next wave of flexibility naturally take a more organic path. Let managers work with it and have ‘tailored’ conversations at employee level.


It is absolutely right that these conversations happen between employees and managers, but you need to beware the pitfalls of letting this pan out without a systematic approach.


Pitfall # 1: All for one and not for all

Without question, the pandemic has hit parents with young children very hard indeed. However, many people who aren't parents also want increased flexibility for a whole range of reasons. If there is one thing this pandemic is revealing is that people are reflecting on what is important in their lives.


Despite this – and the right-to-request flexible working in the UK and other countries - there is still a tendency to view the need for flexible working as being exclusively for parents, or in some cases as a privilege for senior staff.

An inconsistent approach to how we respond to flexible working requests or the conversations we have around increased flexibility, can breed unhealthy friction in the workplace. It can also get you in a lot of hot water in how you justify one arrangement for one person but not for another. Access to commercially viable flexible working patterns should be open to all. Those with kids, those with elderly parents, those with a situation that requires them to take time away from work at short notice, and those who simply perform better when they have the freedom to manage their own time.

PITFALL #2: Diving in without a plan A key challenge for managers working with teams who have different variations of flexibility is how to manage individuals, workloads and communications across varying schedules and locations.

Different working patterns do require advanced planning and coordination of schedules, as well as team communications and collaboration.

Doing a bit of upfront planning around how to manage, and accommodate, varying work schedules and locations will pay dividends.

To help manage this, many employers put in place a model of core days and core hours during which everyone knows that the whole team will be available.


Co-located teams, where some might be working in the office and some working from home can also lead to challenges – be these perceived or real - about how the team communicates and collaborates effectively together.


If the manager is in the office, it will invariably be the case those working in the office will get more airtime and find it easier to collaborate and share information. Those at home risk missing out on the watercooler chats or informal corridor conversations. If you are not careful, this can also lead to more deep-rooted bias around perceived performance. Research has shown that where teams have co-located staff, it is often the case that homeworkers are more likely to be over-looked for the strategic projects and promotions than those more visible in the office.

PITFALL # 3: Increased flex without design Pitfall number three is a theme that really runs through pitfall 1 and 2 but needs to be pulled out separately as it’s a ‘biggie’.


Flexibility means different things to different people – you will have employees who want:

  1. Flexibility as to where they work

  2. Flexibility around the times in the day they work

  3. Flexibility around the amount of time they commit to working during the day or week.

Pitfall 3 is what a lot of well-intentioned managers fall into it – that is agreeing to flexible working patterns without consideration for the job, its workload and deliverables or how the team needs to collaborate to get work done.

Agreeing to flex without considering the job design can do more damage than good

Where the flex has been agreed to help the individual but has been designed for and around the individual and not the role can lead to all sorts of issues.

But here is the big takeaway - not all flexible working options work for all roles. It has to work for the role, the team and the business as well as the employee. When flexible only goes one way – if there are too many boundaries or restrictions in place, flexible working can’t be what it’s supposed to be, flexible.

We have seen how this has tipped some managers over the edge and shifted them from the camp of being supportive of flexible working arrangements into the camp of it’s a nightmare and too difficult to manage.

It’s essential that as you start to increase the flexibility in your jobs, teams and workforce, you design and agree to viable working patterns that not only work for the employee but also work for the business and the team.

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