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Convincing Middle Management of the Value of Flex

By Melissa J. Anderson

A recent study by the Families and Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that flexible working arrangements are on the rise in corporations. Most employers feel that workplace flexibility enables them to attract and retain employees at all skill levels.

The study says, “It is clear that employers are motivated by a combination of business reasons—retention and recruitment—as well as the desire to help employees.”

But, the study points out, while in many cases the policies are in place, whether employees are encouraged or empowered to use them is another question.  In many cases, employees don’t even know they exist.

The study explains:

“The majority of employers responded ‘very true’ to statements assessing whether supervisors are encouraged to … be supportive of employees with family needs and by finding solutions that work for both employees and the organization (58%). Far fewer employers, however, responded ‘very true’ to statements asking whether management rewards those within the organization who support flexible work arrangements (12%) and whether their organization makes a real and ongoing effort to inform employees of the availability of work life assistance (25%).”

The issues the FWI and SHRM discuss come down to culture. Employers don’t seem to be emphasizing to middle management the importance of flexibility when it comes to retention and recruitment goals, or utilizing accountability measures to ensure policies around flex work are expressed and enforced.

Cultural Flexibility

Some measures of cultural flexibility are decreasing, the researchers note. Since the last time the survey was performed, “fewer employers report that management rewards those within the organization who support effective flexible work arrangements in 2012 (12%) than in 2005 (31%).”

But simply creating rewards for managers supporting flex work won’t get the job done either – especially since much of the middle-management resistance to flex work is a result of fears that they will simply have to do more with less if employees are working outside the office or taking time off for family responsibilities.

Additionally, simply creating a top-down directive about flexible arrangements won’t work either to ensure managers carry the banner for an entire initiative. In a recent Fast Company blog post, workplace flexibility expert Cali Yost explained, “In my experience, a top-down policy and an ultimatum will fail. It only creates more resistance.”

The first step in ensuring middle managers are serving as stewards of cultural flexibility is make sure they buy into the business case for it themselves – by discussing the issue and coming to an understanding about it with their peers. Yost explained, “At the end of the process, people feel invested in this approach to flexible work that they developed themselves, bottom up and top down.”

She also suggests emphasizing the give and take aspect of workplace flexibility. Employees must see flexibility as a partnership, in which they work with managers to create a plan for ensuring the work gets done.

She explains, “Too many organizations put the responsibility for all aspects of work flexibility on the middle manager. They are expected to figure out what will work for the employee, how it will be managed day-to-day, and how the work will get done. No wonder managers don’t support it!”

In this scenario, individual employees take the lead on creating a plan and works with managers to assess frequently if the flex arrangement is working. If not, they make changes.

Finally, Yost advises, it’s critical that middle managers are engaged in the process of designing flex programs, and that they aren’t the only ones responsible for making flex work. She writes:

“As long as we make middle managers solely responsible for the success of something that they don’t help create, that doesn’t acknowledge their realities, and that they don’t fully understand, flexible work will continue to hit the roadblock of their resistance and fail.”

By ensuring that middle managers are engaged in flex programs, companies can be sure they are benefiting from the recruitment and retention perks that come with a culture of flexibility.

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