Bendy road

June 2014 brought new legislation which gave all employees with 26 weeks’ service the right to request flexible working for any reason. Since this change, it’s been very likely that one or more of your team will request flexible working of some sort, at some point. HR will cover the legal side of the matter, but the role of managers in getting a successful flexible arrangement is critical. This is ultimately accomplished by having the right sort of conversations.

Trust and openness determine the success of flexible working arrangements. The manager must have confidence that the employee will maintain their level of performance and remain engaged with their work, while the employee must have confidence that the manager will support them and provide the tools require for the arrangement to be a success.

Trust is hard to pin down; it’s largely and sometimes exclusively subconscious. It’s helpful to keep in mind that there are things that we can consciously to inspire mutual trust in a relationship, and to remember that we perform best when the quality of our social relationships affords positive emotions.

Trust in the workplace is mainly a matter of how we treat and interact with each other. In our busy working environments filled with processes, jargon, email and social media, it’s easy to forget about the power of authentic human relationships which go beyond the day-to-day practicalities of working life.

It therefore makes sense for managers to prioritize identifying effective ways to improve their ability to have meaningful conversations. I believe that there are two conversations that managers can use to pave the way for freer and more productive conversations in future.

Insight and interest: Establishing a trusting relationship

This conversation is about learning about each other; creating a space to better understand each other’s personalities, activities, working preferences and the rationale behind them. This conversation requires the courage to properly open up and talk about who you are, your drives and interests. It also requires you to be genuinely interested in the other person. Once you’ve created a space in which to hold the conversation, open with a proposition like

  • “I’d like to meet up to talk about how we can build a really effective working relationship.”
It’s important to phrase questions in an appropriate way, such that sincerity and integrity underpins this first step. For example:
  • “What would you like to know about me and how I work, to understand where I’m coming from?”
  • “What do I need to know about you, your motivations, style and preferences so I can help you be your best and we can work together really effectively?”
Building familiarity and value doesn’t rely on your agreeing on everything that’s discussed; acknowledging differences will accomplish the same effect. This conversations provides a platform for the relationship to develop into the future through the mutual interests, insights and reference points it reveals.

Intention and integrity: Agreeing mutual expectations

Clear expectations on both sides are critical for the success of a flexible working arrangement. This conversation moves beyond simple objective setting by focusing on mutual aspirations and the reasoning behind those aspirations. Having this conversation will also help to identify others within the organisation who may be critical to the staff member’s success.

Here are some examples of how this conversation could shape-up:

  • “Tell me about what you are seeking to achieve and why”
  • “What has lead you to need more flexibility?”
  • “What type of flexibility do you need?”
  • “So what expectations should we have of each other?” (e.g. deadlines, time in office, response times, communication).
  • “How can we hold each other to account for meeting these expectations?”

Attention to detail makes for lasting success. While flexible working inevitably results in a manger seeing less of their employee, I believe strongly that no amount of digital communication can substitute face-to-face interaction, that there is no digital medium which matches up to the power of genuine human interaction.

Maintaining a trusting relationship requires our actions following conversation to be congruent with what we’ve said in that conversation. Managers should follow up at regular intervals to make sure that expectations are being met, and to see if the arrangement has provided either party with new insights into themselves and their working preferences.

The relationships we have reside at the heart of our day-to-day lives. Using genuinely interested enquiry and discussion will reduce stress and increase productivity, ultimately leading to a successful and rewarding collaborative arrangement for both manager and employee.

By Nigel Purse, co-author of 5 Conversations