Six Skills for Leading and Managing a Flexible Workplace

Six Skills for Leading and Managing a Flexible Workplace

A massive change is taking place as people shift to a flexible workplace model. We call this seismic shift the “Third Wave” in how people work. Many organizations have responded in innovative ways. For example, leaders are learning how to manage by outcomes, investing in leadership coaching, and reimagining their organization’s purpose and vision.

In this article, we want to discuss six skills we think leaders and managers need in order to succeed in a flexible workplace:

Skill 1: Extend your “trust walls.” Even though you can’t see people face to face as frequently, you still need to trust them to take personal responsibility for fulfilling their work responsibilities. Trust people until you have ample evidence that your trust is misplaced. Then have the serious conversations needed to get things back on track. In this virtual environment, trust is influenced most by these six factors: clarity, transparency, collaboration, inclusion, empathy, and consistent communication.

  • Ask about people’s needs, acknowledge them, and tailor actions accordingly.
  • Demonstrate vulnerability and empathy.
  • Adopt a learning orientation and seek to understand other people’s communication styles – how they process information and where they focus their attention.
  • Build space for diverse perspectives and encourage greater participation.
  • Make time for structured remote team building and networking.
  • Be intentional about mentoring and developing all team members.
  • Share information broadly: people want to be informed about the organization’s goals, its strategies going forward, and what success looks like.

To learn more about the importance of trust and how to build it, check out articles: “Building Focus and Trust in Virtual Teams” and “What the Research Reveals.”


Skill 2: “Right size” people’s job expectations. Jobs vary considerably in terms of whether they can be done remotely all the time, some of the time, or none of the time. As a manager, your job is to organize people to achieve important organizational goals. Be mindful of how much flexibility is possible in where and when people work.

  • Be mindful of the requirements of each job and clearly articulate the parameters.
  • To the extent you can, help people transition to different job duties that better match their work skills and life needs.
  • To the extent possible, give people choices in which projects or assignments to work on. Some organizations use “job boards” to list what projects are available.
  • Recognize that expectations may need to be adjusted; work with employees to modify turnaround time expectations and focus on the top priorities.

Skill 3: Provide clear objectives and measures of success: One of the most important things that you can do to lead in a flexible workplace is set clear objectives and measurable results for people. Key results can be defined in any time increment you like: weekly, monthly, quarterly or annually. The important thing is to write them down, communicate them, ask for feedback, make any refinements you think are reasonable, and then hold people accountable to them.

Using objectives and key results (OKRs) makes it possible for people to work from anywhere, knowing full well that they are accountable for achieving specific results. For managers, the trick is learning the habit of planning and documenting work expectations. It’s a bit of a lift, but once people get the hang of it, the payoff is huge in helping people thrive in a flexible work environment.

Here’s an example of OKRs from a utility company that wants to roll out an automated bill paying system. These OKRs were for the IT director:

Objective: Enable customers to pay bills securely online
Quarter 1 result Quarter 2 result Quarter 3 result
Pilot project with 10,000 customers completed and results analyzed Automated payment system available to 90% of customers Automated payment system available to 100% of customers

In this case, the IT director was tasked with coming up with the initial definition of the objective and key results. His manager then reviewed and refined the metrics. They were then shared with the teams responsible for implementation.


Skill 4: Set clear standards and norms. Even when people work in different places, you still need clear standards and norms of behavior. For example, what norms do you want to set with regard to responding to emails? How about the structure of meetings? What norms will help make sure everyone feels included and has a voice in meetings?

Here are some tips:

  • Create a policy clarifying the times when people are expected to be available to read and respond to emails, texts, messages etc.
  • Decide on a standard turnaround time for people to respond to their email or text messages if they are the direct recipient (and make it clear that “no response” is not an option).
  • Set standards around who gets copied on emails.
  • Determine which meetings will be in person vs. virtual.
  • Decide whether if one person is virtual, all participants must be virtual.
  • For virtual meetings, set a standard for which meetings cameras must be on vs. camera optional.
  • Develop these standards and others into team operating principles.
  • Consider adopting these rules for productive communication.

Skill 5: Celebrate innovations in adapting. Sure, it’s easy to bemoan the inconveniences of too many Zoom meetings. But flexible workplaces hold the promise of improving not only how people work, but the overall success of your organization. In fact, they are a catalyst for innovation. So, focus on the positives and appreciate the innovative practices that employees are trying.

Did one of your teams figure out how to use a new digital tool to manage a project? Did someone send a clever email to a customer? We’re all learning how to thrive and be effective in flexible workplaces. As a leader, your job is to send positive reinforcing signals when people innovate or go above and beyond. Consider these ideas:

  • Create a company-wide innovation challenge to gather ideas.
  • Conduct peer-to-peer award sessions.
  • Have a dedicated slack channel for shoutouts.
  • Acknowledge innovation successes by taking time to celebrate wins.
  • Show your appreciation in personal ways: a phone call is much more effective than an email.

Skill 6: Focus on building retention. The Great Resignation has resulted in roughly 33 million Americans quitting their jobs since the spring of 2021. Of those leaving their jobs, 79% of U.S. employees did so because of feeling under-appreciated. That’s not surprising when you consider that 65% of employees claim they’ve received no recognition within the last year and that 35% explicitly note that this under-appreciation negatively impacts their productivity; and a whopping 78% say they would work harder if only they were given more recognition.

The flexible workplace provides new opportunities to increase retention. In retaining talent, remember that the number one reason people leave is because of their interactions with their boss. If you’re micromanaging people, if you’re breathing down their necks every hour to see where they are and what they are doing, then you are sending a not-so-subtle signal that you don’t trust people. Here are some keys:

  • Displaying trust is key to retention.
  • Showing support for people’s individual needs is key to retention.
  • Expressing gratitude and appreciation is key to retention.
  • Helping people navigate changes in their careers is key to retention.
  • Creating a space for fun and laughter, even in a virtual meeting, is key to retention.

Conclusion

This “Third Wave” is an opportunity for leaders to shift their mindset, commit to supportive values and norms, and provide guidance that supports quality work, balance, and well-being. It is a call for more frequent and transparent communication. It requires being intentional about what your culture will look like and defining new norms. It’s a call to hold yourself to a stronger standard of inclusivity that makes everyone feel like part of the team.

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Eric Douglas

Eric Douglas is the senior partner and founder of Leading Resources Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on developing high-performing organizations. For more than 20 years, Eric has successfully helped a wide array of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and corporations achieve breakthroughs in performance. His new book The Leadership Equation helps leaders achieve strategic clarity, manage change effectively, and build a leadership culture.

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