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Flexible Working: a Leadership Challenge

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There is palpable frustration amongst the top leaders of organisations great and small: the demands for flexible working are increasing, and so is the pressure on senior executives and their supporting teams to deliver it.

Those who refuse flexibility say they want to protect productivity and innovation and often argue that there are too many challenges with implementing hybrid ways of working. And while this is indeed a complex challenge, there are many solutions to choose from, as well. So what is it that drives some leaders to continue to believe that offering work flexibility is simply not worth it? And what do leaders need to make the best decision for their organisation?

The ethos of an organisation is heavily influenced by its senior leaders and their personal values and preferences, as well as biases. Questioning these on a personal level is a radical act of leadership, both of self and others.

There are numerous studies that have researched in depth the pros and cons of flexible working and the curious leader can find these easily. Our focus here is on the leaders in particular and their personal challenges in making the decision whether to allow flexible working or not.

Staying curious is often a challenge, particularly for successful leaders who have certain strategies they rely on to maintain their success. Yet the mark of leadership is not in repeating successful past strategies, but in becoming aware of when they’ve reached an edge in their leadership that they seem unable to overcome.

This is a leader’s personal journey of self-awareness and taking responsibility. More than just taking responsibility for what an organisation decides, a leader is responsible for being aware of how they show up in the world, and how that impacts the organisation – and taking responsibility for that.

In the context of work flexibility, a desire to encourage productivity and innovation is commendable. There are studies that argue for and against that point of view so ultimately a leader will rely on their own thinking to make a decision.

The question for the leader is what drives that decision? How does the leader relate to the employees?

How we relate to people is determinative. A leader who relates to people as somehow inferior or in need of management, will find evidence to support that point of view. When the office is mostly empty on Mondays and Fridays, the leader rushes to assume people take extra long weekends and therefore need to be forced by any means necessary to follow the rules of what we consider acceptable hours of working.

Some leaders assume that people are productive and innovative only when certain conditions are met, such as close proximity to each other, or a certain environment. By implication, people need managing, control, and guidance. At worst, the assumption is that left to their own devices, people lose their work ethic and desire to make an impact with their work.

By contrast, a leader who believes employees are inherently responsible and driven by a desire to make a difference, will be curious about how best to harness and cultivate those traits, be it through flexible working or other ways of allowing people to build their personal and professional lives in a less disconnected way.

The leader’s experience of the workplace can also play a part in creating a biased view. They’re typically working alone in their own office, coming and going as they please, and have the resources to make sure someone else takes care of the home responsibilities they can delegate. This is less likely to be the experience of the average employee required to be in the office at certain times, and also manage their home but only outside the working hours.

Overcoming biases is an exercise in self-awareness through self-questioning. As a leader, ask yourself: what am I not seeing here? What is an alternative point of view to how I am thinking? How do I relate to the employees? How can I relate to them in a way that empowers them, and allows me to make the best decision for the company as a whole?

Flexible working may not be for everyone, nor for every company. But in making the decision, a leader who is not self-aware of their biases and assumptions can jeopardise the company at a crucial time when systemic shifts in our society require leaders to future-proof their organisations.

World Wellbeing Week 2024

June 24 – June 30

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