If employees want the benefits of flexibility, they’ll also need to shoulder some of the responsibility that goes with it, like autonomous problem-solving and providing and checking for updates. However, that doesn’t mean setting them adrift in the storm. Managers are still responsible for making sure everyone is rowing to the correct location in the same direction — even if they’re rowing at different times. To increase flexibility for employees without losing productivity — or sanity — managers will need to think differently about when employees work together, who works together, and how to share information and with whom, all while being careful to stay abreast of any changes and rapidly communicating changes in priorities.
The past two years have shown that employees desire greater flexibility — and they’re willing to change jobs to get it. Flexibility has tremendous benefits for employees, including reduced burnout and greater job satisfaction. However, it can also result in spiraling coordination costs for managers, untenable amounts of wasted effort, and the inability to respond quickly to client requests. The brief huddles that once allowed teams to promptly brainstorm solutions and align efforts are now harder to pull together. It can take days to get most members in the same virtual place at the same time (including one person who’s half-listening from the dentist’s chair).
To increase employee flexibility on their teams, managers need guidance and support — otherwise, they could burn out on the job or check out to find a new one. Here are four ways managers can offer their teams flexibility without breaking under the coordination costs or significantly stalling progress.
Rethink When Employees Work Together
For complex tasks that require teamwork, it’s not feasible to provide employees with complete flexibility (i.e., the ability to work for any duration at any time). However, returning to the standard in-office work week won’t work either. Thus, managers will need to think differently and deeply about project requirements and schedule accordingly.
For project-based workflows, managers should carefully chart out the project tasks and timeline and issue an advance request for employees to block a specific set of days for overlapping work during key project phases (e.g., kickoff, mid-point, finalization).
For less predictable workflows, consider aligning scheduling bursts with calendar time. For example, during the second week of the month, employees are expected to be working from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Eastern, then they’re allowed to choose which 40 hours (+/– 10) they work weekly during the rest of the month. Scheduling bursts significantly reduce process loss and project restart costs, especially when members work on multiple projects.
Rethink Who Works Together
In workplaces with less physical and temporal overlap between employees, managers may also need to reorganize their larger teams into multiteam systems of smaller, empowered, and interconnected groups. These smaller teams improve flexibility and adaptability.
For example, converting your team of nine into three teams of three empowers them to make decisions and makes it easier for employees to help coordinate their work. In other words, managers should look to supplement vertical coordination (the manager needs to figure out how to get this project completed and accommodate employee requests) with horizontal coordination among groups of employees (members need to help figure out how to complete their portion of the project and adjust for each other’s requests).
This reconfiguration reduces the coordination costs placed on the manager without dumping them all on the most accommodating employee(s). Each employee is only asked to help coordinate with a couple of other individuals rather than everyone in the larger team.
Smaller groups also tend to have less “social loafing,” where people exert less effort when part of a team than they would individually. This is especially important in distributed teams where there is less social pressure to be (or at least appear) busy.
Rethink Information Sharing
When employees were co-located and working roughly similar hours, it was easier to keep everyone on the same page with meetings and learn about important issues by walking around. Giving or receiving an important update only required a few steps (or perhaps a brief elevator ride).
Long waits for status updates or answers to questions can kill productivity. Thus, information availability is critical for flexible workplaces. There are numerous tools to facilitate asynchronous work. However, employees must actually use and update them in real time. For example, posting a completed product to a shared repository after multiple weeks of work won’t cut it. As members may not be available for hours or even days, having access to in-progress work is of paramount importance.
As a bonus, work progress transparency often promotes accountability and helps managers more quickly identify when an employee needs assistance (assuming appropriate boundaries are put in place to help employees feel safe). Managers should also consider dusting off some classic project management tools, including the RACI matrix, which denotes who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed for each task.
Revisit What Employees Are Working On
Combining and expanding on the previous three steps, managers must think more deeply than ever about the structure of their employees’ tasks and priorities. Map out each part of the task and how they’re connected to one another to determine when scheduling bursts will be needed and when you can assign discrete pieces of the project to smaller subgroups. Record and update all of this information in a shared location.
Understanding the connections between different tasks is especially crucial for setting priorities to avoid bottlenecks. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. In the absence of guidance, many individuals will choose to complete the easier, smaller tasks in their personal queue rather than tackle a vague and complex problem (which, unbeknownst to them, is holding up several of their teammates, plus the marketing and operations teams). Priorities are likely to change over time, especially in dynamic environments. Frequently and clearly communicating priorities will help ensure that your employees’ time and efforts are well spent, no matter when or where they’re working.
If employees want the benefits of flexibility, they’ll also need to shoulder some of the responsibility that goes with it, like autonomous problem-solving and providing and checking for updates. However, that doesn’t mean setting them adrift in the storm. Managers are still responsible for making sure everyone is rowing to the correct location in the same direction — even if they’re rowing at different times.
To increase flexibility for employees without losing productivity — or sanity — managers will need to think differently about when employees work together, who works together, and how to share information and with whom, all while being careful to stay abreast of any changes and rapidly communicating changes in priorities.