We recently had a visitor from our bank. He was flummoxed at the nearly empty office, with just a few women at their desks. “Can you share your team photos?” he asked, a little bewildered. Albeit, it was 4 pm on a Friday, but this is after all Bangalore, India, and our company claims to have nearly a score of employees.
The visiting Head of Marketing of a new customer org had a similar reaction. Where are the people? We hastened to assure him that we do have people – full-timers, part-timers, freelancers and consultants, with some who come in early and leave early, some who come in late and leave early, and many other combinations in-between. For instance, we have a project manager who works completely out of home, and a senior designer who works remotely from Hyderabad.
Our flex-hours and accommodation of non-regular work schedules has even bewildered recent hires, weathered by decades of working for 9 to 5 (translating to 10 to 8) organisations. We have had new employees asking for an hour off in the afternoon for some personal work – after we assure them a couple of times that we couldn’t care less if they took the entire afternoon off provided they get their work done, they get it.
Does this kind of flex-work make management tougher? In some ways, it does. Especially if you’re the “by-the-hours, by-my-word” kind of management. But it also makes life easier if you have a team of self-managed, driven people who are working with you because they want to, rather than have to.
Here are some tips that have worked for us to get a flex-work organisation ticking:
1. Hire well. Try to gauge from the interviews and experience demonstrated if the person needs supervision or is a good self-manager. Ask scenario-based questions; have multiple people interview. Try to get an authentic response to the question “Why do you want this job?” What drives the person? Is it money? Or the role? Someone who wants to be a content writer has the yen to write no matter what. These are driven people, who don’t need a clock-watcher hovering over them.
2. Trust them: Although this may be the anti-thesis of most Indian management principles, trust in the maturity of your employees – the very people you hired! – to get the job done. Many (especially the more experienced ones – scarred by clock-watcher managers) may be all at sea initially. But remember, a lack of fixed office hours does not mean a lack of deliverables and process. Set the expectations right and let them loose. Watch them perform.
3. Be ready to supervise. Many younger hires, especially fresh college grads, may require intense supervision initially. Be prepared to spend the time to coach them in time management skills. This may involve helping them estimate the time required to complete tasks, following up to ensure barriers to completion are removed and constantly communicating with them. Coach them well and they will blossom into self-managed professionals.
4. Set the right expectations. Constant communication and the right expectation-setting with the team are imperative with flex hours. A set of core office hours (e.g., 5 hours M-F) may be essential when everyone is present at the office to ensure the ball isn’t dropped due to lack of face-to-face time.
5. Yes, there is a downside. Don’t hesitate to tell the team about the downside of working in a flex org – you may have to log in during evenings/weekends to get the job done. Ask for periodic reports (weekly ideally, daily for new hires) of work done, work planned and barriers for success. Over-communicate till the team is on the same page as you.
5. If the shoe doesn’t fit… If the fit is not proper, you will know within a few weeks at worst – with indicators such as missed deadlines, not sending regular reports and inferior quality of work. Identify issues early on and re-communicate expectations. However, if it’s not working out, let the employee go. Not everyone is made for working in flex orgs.
As you can see, active management is still essential for success in a flex org. Flexible work hours mean less clock-watching, no looking over your employees’ shoulders and nominal register signing. They also mean more responsibility, over-communication and going the extra mile to get the job done.