flexible working / dolly parton was right you know

flexible working / dolly parton was right you know

2019, Jul 20    

I’m continually baffled by tech companies who set fixed working hours and expect everyone to work from the same place all the time. It feels old fashioned, in an industry that prides itself on innovation. And I’ve seen the advantages of flexible working play out - in terms of organisational effectiveness, as well as hiring & retention.

Personally, I’ve worked part-time, I’ve worked from home 1-3 days a week, I’ve worked fully remote from an apartment in Istanbul, and I’ve managed a globally distributed team spanning three offices in seven timezones.

My first tech startup role, which I started just after my child’s first birthday, was a four-day week: three days in the office, one day of completely unpredictable hours split across two days’ naptimes, evenings and stolen hours at the weekend.

I’ve worked in companies where there’s a designated work-from-home day each week; I’ve also worked in a globally distributed company where every team was distributed across at least two timezones with different public holidays and there were exactly zero hours each week which fell into ‘normal business hours’ for everyone in the company.

There are so many advantages to flexible working, both for the individual and the company. We talk a lot about the advantages to the individual, and the corollary that happier people means better retention.

Shifting to flexible work requires some organisational changes, all of which end up being advantageous to the overall health of the organisation.

Ability to hire a more diverse team

We know that a diverse team is a better team, so I’m not going to spend time making the business case or explaining why this is a good thing. Let’s talk instead about how flexible working helps you build a more diverse (and therefore better) team.

Parents are the obvious beneficiaries of flexible working. Childcare is expensive and seems to be predicated on everyone working 9-5 with zero commute. Women with children typically shoulder the brunt of childcare responsibility in families, too.

This spans out further to everyone with adult dependents or caring responsibilities, too. In general, people of colour have more dependents than white people, so benefit even further from the flexibility to take a sibling or parent to a medical appointment or other activity.

Flexible working also generally works better for folks with disabilities. Commuting during rush hours with a physical disability? Chronic illnesses often require relatively high amounts of contact time with medical specialists, and your stressed & depressed employees will likely want to see a therapist every week, all of which needs to take place during standard business hours. Open-plan offices are really not well designed for neurodivergence (or arguably neurotypicals, though my feelings about office design are firmly out of scope here).

Better communication

Flexible working is a forcing function to fix your internal comms rhythms and routines.

One of the “joys” of a fully co-located team with set hours is that you can have meetings whenever you like, and you can always just tap the person you want to talk to on the shoulder.

However this has a lot of downsides, especially once you’re communicating at any kind of scale - and even more downsides when you’re doubling your company size every 6-9 months.

Ironically, the best ways to improve your company’s internal communication effectiveness involve both (1) disregarding the perceived advantages of having everyone all in the same place at the same time and (2) doing the thing that you are annoyed you need to do to accommodate flexibility.

Good communication that works for flexibility means:

  • better documentation: storing knowledge in writing somewhere searchable
  • better meeting rhythms: no ad-hoc chats pulling folks out of what they’re doing
  • more compressed meeting schedule: fewer 15-min gaps where nothing really useful can be achieved
  • right meeting participants: wait till all relevant folks can attend, not just whoever is nearest
  • “could this meeting be an email?” or, fewer update meetings
  • asynchronous decision-making in writing (through slack or email or a shared doc with comments) (NB this also helps folks who like to ponder or research before deciding)
  • stronger organisational memory: discussions are more searchable, less reliant on hoping you can find someone who was there and remembers why you did this particular thing last year

Arguably you should do all these things even if your company is (and always will be) fully co-located, but colocation means you can get away with not doing it and living in a broken state for longer.

Productivity & quality & focus

You want to know that people are doing good work, right? And working hard often means looking like you’re working for a long period of time, i.e. sitting at your desk for at least the mandated company hours.

However. Being present is much easier to measure than productivity or quality, because to measure either or both of those you need to explicitly set out what quality means to you, and what productivity looks like.

The ramification of this is that you need to get better at setting goals and standards and deciding what you care about. Which, in turn, makes it easier for the people working in your company to make decisions and prioritise the things that ultimately matter most.

Different people have different daily rhythms that mean they’re more or less productive at certain times. Being able to schedule your own day (to some extent) enables folks to move their working time into those hours when they’re most likely to be in the right mindset and at the right energy level to be super productive.

I’ve found that my ability to focus deeply is lowest immediately after lunch, so tend to schedule less solo work then in favour of more stimulating things (like 1:1s with my team, interviewing, dealing with my inbox backlog). I’m much better at tackling a big piece of work late afternoon - but childcare means leaving at 5pm if I’m on the pickup schedule. When I can, I tend to take the morning school run so that I’m not stuck racing out of the office when I’m hitting peak focus. At the same time, there have been many days when my brain has powered down partway through the day so I’ve used that time to commute home and then finish my day from home after a break.

I prefer to work from home when I have no meetings at all so can do a whole distraction-free focussed-work day - knowing that if anything goes wrong I can jump on a videocall or be available on Slack.

Legal rights too!

We all (in the UK anyway) have the right to formally request flexible working arrangements. There are a short list of reasons why a company can refuse:

  • extra costs that will damage the business
  • the work cannot be reorganised among other staff
  • people cannot be recruited to do the work
  • flexible working will affect quality and performance
  • the business will not be able to meet customer demand
  • there’s a lack of work to do during the proposed working times
  • the business is planning changes to the workforce

But that’s it. So given that you’ll need to acquiesce to most flexible working requests, it’s quicker and easier to set up your boundaries and guidelines early, rather than in response to one of these requests. You’ll buy goodwill from your team, you’ll find it easier to hire, and you’ll remove the nerve-wracking tension for those in your team who have a genuine need to work flexibly (vs a very valid preference!).

OK I’m sold, how do we get there?

I’m aware it can be a little daunting to start making a change like this. It takes a mindset shift as much as a policy change. But it doesn’t have to be everything at once, you can ease into it, and it’s good practice to set some guardrails and guidelines for comfort and to make the transition smoother.

Here’s an example of the kind of internal policy you might consider:

  • we want you to be effective and productive while you are working, and we understand that for many people that means not working fixed hours at your desk.
  • we expect you to average 40 hours a week if you are full-time. Some weeks will be longer, some will be shorter. It is up to you and your team how you manage this.
  • as a company, we commit to holding recurring internal meetings between 11am and 4pm wherever possible, and generally avoid holding recurring internal meetings on Mondays and Fridays.
  • we expect you to commit to shaping your working hours around internal meetings and any external meeting requirements. e.g. if you mostly work with people in a different time zone, you may wish to shift your typical working hours to accommodate that.
  • we commit to taking reasonable steps to make it possible to do your work from a non-office location, e.g. we’ll equip our meeting rooms with a webcam and microphones, and every new joiner will receive a £50 contribution to headphones of your choice that enable you to dial in to meetings and be heard.
  • we expect you to work in the office most days each week, unless agreed otherwise with your team.
  • you are responsible for ensuring that your working schedule does not impact your team’s ability to function effectively. Your team and manager are responsible for letting you know when your availability doesn’t meet the team’s needs.

It can take a while to set guidelines and expectations that work for you, so it’ll always be an iterative process. However it’s well worth the time spent for the goodwill you’ll buy from the team, and the additional effectiveness you’ll all gain.

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