Making workflex work under fire

Effective workflex is bigger than programs and policies such as telecommuting, adjustable hours, or better shift scheduling.

Who hasn’t had the experience of learning that someone else’s mistake is now your problem? In many work environments, this is a common occurrence—where employees find their schedules and efforts dictated not by their own best work styles but by the pressures exerted by those around them. In such environments, the idea of effective workplace flexibility may seem like an unrealistic dream. The need to attend to problems raised by other people’s work can feel like an unyielding anchor in what is otherwise a flexible workplace. Yet there can be ways to create workplaces that remain flexible even in the midst of such unpredictable circumstances.

For many, the barrier to making workflex effective is the mistaken belief that workflex is about programs and policies such as telecommuting, adjustable hours, or better shift scheduling. Academic research into intelligence and leadership during stressful periods has found that stressed leaders are unable to bring the full force of their intellect to bear on solving problems and leading others.1 The experience of researchers at Families and Work Institute is that that when leaders are stressed or frustrated, they tend to revert to familiar behaviors—even when those behaviors are unwanted—and have greater difficulty devising original solutions to problems. Therefore, when the unexpected happens and a pre-designed program is ill-equipped to manage it, people tend to revert back to the most plodding and labor-intensive work options. This is usually some version of “stay at the workplace and labor until it is done.”

In truth, effective workflex is bigger than the programmatic tools that it produces. Effective workflex is about a dynamic partnership between employers and employees that defines how, when, and where work gets done in ways that can work for all (including families, clients, and communities). When workflex is viewed through this lens, it can handle such unexpected situations because workflex becomes a process by which employer and employee figure out the best way to get work done. While standard programs can help to avoid repeated conversations that could result in the same answers, they are just a shorthand for predictable situations. The real workflex happens when employers and employees deal with the unexpected.

I experienced a powerful example of workflex in action early in my career, before I’d even heard the words “workplace flexibility.” I was working on the final stage of a report when the client notified my department head that it had sent us the wrong data and the report would need to be redone. During the subsequent staff meeting, the head of my department, who was determined to meet the original deadline despite the error, declared that I should work over the weekend to complete the project. I did not object because I believed that our culture would not support the questioning of someone a few levels above me, and I started thinking of ways to explain to my family why I would not be available to spend long-anticipated time with them that weekend.

My supervisor didn’t give in as easily. He asked one of the rarest questions heard in hierarchical organizations: Why? Why should I work over the weekend, and was that sacrifice actually worth the gain? Once he opened the door to discussion, it quickly became apparent that we could meet the deadline without my working over the weekend. I would have to work late one or two nights the following week, but that was a minor sacrifice compared to canceling my plans that weekend.

Though at the time none of us would have called what happened workflex, this experience was a prime example of workflex going wrong and right at the same time. At first, the department head’s determination to meet a deadline was not a positive workflex decision, as he chose the simplest solution: non-stop work until the project was done. He had neither asked my opinion about whether the work could be done more effectively and in a manner compatible with my plans, nor really considered that the client might not benefit from early delivery of the report.

On the other hand, my supervisor displayed workflex at its best, as he engaged multiple stakeholders in discussing the best way to handle the problem and considered the needs of the client, the employer, and the employees at the same time. By discussing the problem for a quarter of an hour, he secured not only the client’s product, but my increased commitment and that of other employees whom I told about his willingness to consider my needs alongside those of our clients. When done right, workflex is an aspect of highly effective management that can achieve employer and client goals while maintaining a sustainable and committed workforce.