10 Rules of Engagement to Avoid Flexible Work Failure

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One of the acts performing at the stunning Chaoyang acrobatic theatre in Beijing.
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Once again, flexible work failure is in the news:
  • A member of the House of Representatives is asking the Department of Justice to investigate fraud and abuse by teleworking employees of the U.S. Patent Office.
  • A new study published by the American Sociological Association found that when both a man and a woman asked for work life flexibility to care for a child, the woman was less likely to have her request approved and was more likely to be viewed unfavorably by others than the man.
Why do we keep struggling to get work life flexibility right? Our national study of full-time workers, conducted in partnership with ORC International, offers a clue.

We discovered a startling gap between the number of employees with work life flexibility, and those who received any kind of training or guidance on how to manage it well.

According to our research, 97 percent of respondents reported they had some form of work life flexibility in 2013, which could have been anything from, "I can leave 15 minutes early to watch my son's soccer game," to the more extreme, "I do all of my work from a remote location." In other words, almost everyone in our national probability sample of full-time U.S. workers said they had some work-life wiggle room.

However, only 40 percent of those respondents said they received any support from their employers explaining how to use their work life flexibility. That means 57 percent of employees were flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants trying to figure out how to flexibly manage their work and life on their own. In fact, it's encouraging there aren't more negative headlines!

How can employers train and guide their employees to minimize flexible work failures and encourage even more success? It starts by reinforcing a few basic rules of engagement:

Rule #1: Work life flexibility is a core competency, not an optional elective. The lack of training and guidance can be traced back to a lingering belief that learning the "how to" basics of flexible work success is an optional elective. No longer. If you are one of the 97 percent with some degree of work life flexibility, then you need to master the skills and tools to use that flexibility to achieve high performance and work-life well being. What are those skills and tools? Keep reading.

Rule #2: Tailor your work life flexibility to meet your needs and the needs of the business. One of the many problems with formal one-size-fits-all policies and programs, like the one rolled out by the U.S. Patent Office, is that they don't allow the flexibility to match the unique realities of a job and the goals of a person. So it fails. When work life flexibility is at its strategic best, you follow a process that guides you and your manager to tailor a solution based on your unique realities and the needs of the business. Everyone has access to the same process, but not everyone gets the same type of flexibility.

Rule #3: Focus on "how" the work will get done, less on "why" you want flexibility. Yes, telework allowed the U.S. Patent Office to save real estate costs and stay open in bad weather, but perhaps more focus on training, systems and metrics to help teleworking employees do their jobs well could have helped them avoid some of their current challenges. Yes, taking care of a child is important, but if the above study had focused on how the job would get done and not on why the flexibility was requested, perhaps the women would have experienced less bias.

Rule #4: Flexibility is the means, but work+life fit is the end. It's important to understand the "rules of the road" for any type of flexibility your organization supports, whether it's telework, flexible shifts in your hours, compressed workweeks, job sharing, and reduced schedules. But training can't stop there. People have to learn how to take control and use that flexibility to manage their unique work+life fit, day-to-day and at major life transitions. With a clear work+life fit goal, flexibility has more focus and accountability.

Rule #5: Use technology with deliberate intention. Over the years, Chief Technology Officers have been some of my biggest fans. They offer technology to their employees. That technology gives people greater flexibility in how, when and where they work. But success requires more than learning how to connect remotely to your organization's fire-walled intranet, or set up a conference call with your smartphone. When you learn to flexibly manage your work+life fit, it's easier to figure out how to connect with and disconnect from technology with deliberate intention.

Rule #6: Collaborate, communicate and coordinate even more. Another surprising finding from our national study was that 31 percent of respondents said they did most of their work away from their employer's location. "Work" no longer means we are all in the same physical space at the same time, every day. This requires an extra layer of collaboration and communication. Make sure your individual flexibility is coordinated others with whom you work. Clarify assumptions about availability and responsiveness. For example, if you want to finish a report at home in the evening, confirm that works for colleagues who may need to be available to help you. If not, brainstorm an alternative plan.

Rule #7: Be flexible with your flexibility. You may be officially scheduled to work from home every Tuesday and Thursday, but your boss asks you to cover for her at an important meeting next Tuesday in the office. Try to switch your day. Your hours may have formally shifted and you now work from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but your team has to complete a last minute proposal before 6:30 p.m. Offer to stay later and pitch in. Every now and then, be flexible with your flexibility. The goodwill goes a long way.

Rule #8: Reset your definition of success to match your flexibility. Your definition of success related to money, prestige, advancement and caregiving has to be as flexible as the way you work. For example, if you reduce your schedule, you may not be considered for a promotion that would require a full-time commitment. How do you feel about that? Redefine success related to advancement to match your flexibility. If you work from home one day a week, and you miss a prestigious impromptu meeting with the CEO, how do you feel about that? Redefine success related to prestige to match your flexibility.

Rule #9: Don't set it and forget it. Review often, revise as needed. Jobs change. People change. Business changes. Flexibility may need to adapt and change as well.

Rule #10: Abuse it, you lose it. Period. One bad apple can quickly spoil the whole bunch when it comes to work life flexibility. That is why it needs to be understood upfront, if you abuse flexible work, you lose it.

We can no longer rely on individual trial and error or chance to get work life flexibility right. By training everyone to master these basic rules of engagement, we will not only see fewer headlines of flexible work failures, but we will achieve even more success.


For two decades, Cali Williams Yost has helped business and people partner to create award-winning flexible workplaces. She is the author of two critically acclaimed work+life "fit" how-to books, Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day and Work+Life: Finding the Fit That's Right for You. Follow her on Twitter @caliyost and on Facebook facebook.com/worklifefit. Learn more at flexstrategygroup.com.
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