How to stop flexible working causing team tension by Erika Lucas

How to stop flexible working causing team tension by Erika Lucas

Author: Erika Lucas

Date published: October 2019


There’s no doubt that flexible working plays an important role in organisational success. There’s a whole body of research to show the positive impact it can have on performance, productivity, talent retention and employee engagement and well-being. Managed poorly, however, it can become one of the biggest causes of tension and conflict within the team.

These are the three of the key issues at play:

Keeping it quiet

Flexible working arrangements are often under the radar.  Sometimes this is because managers are worried that if they make a decision to allow someone to adjust their hours or work from home, it will open the floodgates and they won’t be able to cope with a myriad of different working arrangements.  Often, it’s because they are desperate to keep hold of a talented employee, but know that despite the advantages, flexible working is still frowned upon with the business.  The trouble with this ‘under cover’ approach, is that it causes friction between colleagues.  No-one knows quite what has been agreed, what the boundaries are or when they are able to contact their peers.  People start to mutter in corners or round the water cooler, and a tense atmosphere takes hold.

Perceived unfairness

If flexible working is not an ‘up-front’ affair, people begin to suspect, rightly or wrongly, that not everyone is being treated equally.  “How come she’s able to start at 8 and leave at 4, when I have to be here until 5?”  “Why is he allowed to work from home when I have to stay chained to my desk?”  Resentment builds and accusations of favouritism start to fly around.  Workers may even start to withdraw support from colleagues, who they think don’t deserve their help as they are clearly getting a better deal.  Managers find themselves having increasingly confrontational conversations with disgruntled employees.  HR gets drawn in to try and sort the issue out.

Lack of trust

Managers who are new to (or not entirely supportive of) the concept of flexible working often struggle to trust employees who are out of their line of sight.  There’s an underlying suspicion, for example, that if someone is working from home, they have their feet up on the sofa watching Homes under the Hammer, rather than bashing away at the computer keyboard.  They start to try and micro-manage their staff, constantly checking in on them rather than letting them get on with it.  The employee on the receiving end, who 90 per cent of the time is probably being more productive than if they were in the office, is upset by the obvious lack of trust.  The relationship becomes scarred and may disintegrate altogether over time.

What managers need to do differently

Although UK plc has made great strides in better understanding the business benefits of flexible working, there is clearly still a long way to go in understanding how to manage it effectively.  So what do managers need to do to make sure it doesn’t become a subject of team tension?

It’s vital not to let any conflict or bad feeling that arises around flexible working go unaddressed.  If resentment is allowed to fester, motivation and engagement will take a nose dive, productivity will decline and relationships within the team will become irreparably damaged. The key – as with any workplace conflict – is for managers to have open and transparent communication with their team.  Everyone needs to understand why flexible arrangements have been agreed – or in some cases why there is a strong business case they have been declined.

Teams need to be clear about how arrangements will work in practice.  When will colleagues be contactable?  How will it affect the way projects are resourced?  What will the impact be on clients and how will this be communicated or managed? Managers also need to establish transparent processes for communicating with employees who may be working remotely some or all of the time.  The key is to set clear objectives and to check in on these at appropriate intervals, rather than constantly looking over the employee’s shoulder and worrying about how many hours they are putting in.

Get the dialogue going around flexible working, and it will deliver solid business benefits, as well as a happy, motivated team.

What do you think? We welcome your comments…

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