What do authenticity and The Method have to do with flexible working?

Juliet was delighted to moderate a discussion on ‘How to work flexibly in the new world of work’ for Flexpo Digital Summit last week. Working flexibly is a real art. It’s a learning curve and it takes time to cultivate. The discussion addressed the mindset, the behaviours and the disciplines we all need, as employers and staff, to make it happen.

In the midst of a workplace revolution, working from home has forced a huge behaviour change in employees looking for flex and employers recognising the need to embrace agile working. 

Juliet was joined in the discussion, which was broadcast from the Flexpo virtual conference platform, by Catherine Murphy, PwC Flexible Talent Lead, Simon Connolly, Performance and Leadership Excellence Manager at Zurich Insurance, and Caroline Newte Hardie, founder of Peace+Riot, a ‘third space’ which offer parents a place to great work while their children are being looked after.

Q: What are the most important things that leaders and managers need from employees when working flexibly?

Simon: “This is quite new for a lot of leaders and managers. The first thing that’s needed is transparency, trust, and honesty. You need to set out how you would like to work and what the company can provide. We all need honesty and transparency and an open dialogue. A leader will need confidence that you’re focusing on the right things and adding value.”

Caroline: “We’ve had a massive crash course in what we understand to be flexible working. It’s about getting over that fear and looking at which bits have worked well for you and feeding that back. Then, putting that into a long term plan for when the pandemic is over, addressing how that can best support the team. We see too much about what flexible working is not, and not enough about what it adds. Couch it in terms of what you will add, not take away by working flexibly.”

Catherine: “At PwC we had already started what we call the ‘everyday flexibility approach’. Everyone can work flexible hours, from home. You don’t have to have a formal agreement to do that. It has challenged the status quo of having to be seen to be working. It’s encouraged people to trust what their employees are doing. Covid-19 has forced us to understand it can be done. What’s more important is that we’re seeing so many people are actually more productive. Our leadership team is really pleased with the way people have worked. I think it helped that our leadership were very honest from the beginning that they would shoulder the financial burden and look after our people.”

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Q: What has Zurich done to encourage transparency and honesty?

Simon: “We’ve had flexible working for quite a few years. It’s been adopted differently. We have radicalised our performance management approach to do away with mid-year reviews and replace them with continuous conversations. You speak with your manager regularly and build a story through the year. We have easy to use feedback and recognition tools which provide people with an opportunity to feedback on initiatives and behaviours through the year.”

Q: What are the skills and attributes people need to develop to work flexibly?

Catherine: “I would always flip this question on its head. It’s exactly the same skills as for a permanent role. It’s also about not being shy about the fact that you are working flexibly. Individuals always want to promise more, so you have to be very realistic about what you can and can’t do. It is not necessarily seeing yourself as something different. It’s being honest with yourself and your employer.”

Simon: “If you’re going to be working flexibly then you also have to be flexible and adaptable in your approach. People have to show resilience. They have to pick up and fill in some of the gaps themselves if they’ve missed conversations or meetings. 

“Perspective is important. You can become overwhelmed and you’ll need the discipline to recognise when it’s work time and when it’s not. It’s the most tricky thing to do - to commit to your non-working time. Make sure you stay true to it. Step towards technology and use the great collaboration tools out there. We also talk about the ‘Method’ that actors use. Turning up the volume of gesticulation and tone of voice on video calls is a skill in itself.”

Q: How have you encouraged people to be authentic during the review process or hiring?

Simon: “Last year we introduced all our vacancies as part-time, job share, of fill-time and that has attracted different people. Within performance conversations it’s about being honest. People change their working patterns all the time. The vacancy description really changed the dynamic of our applications into the organisation and we need to stay true to that. We need to be remembering why we attracted them in the first place and provide them with the support they signed up to.”

Catherine: “It’s been led by the leaders. They have been coming out and saying they’ve had to flex their work around schools. As a professional services firm we have to account for every six minutes of our time. We had a code that any parent or carer could use when they had a childcare need. It was comforting to know the leadership had our backs with this. 

Simon: “We completely focus on outcomes and impact, not the effort they put in. We have performance goals set at the start of the year and they are flexed and changed as priorities evolve. Those regular conversations we have put that on track so everyone can deliver. 

Q: Many people who work flex grapple with guilt. How can we kick guilt into the long grass?

Simon: “We need to start seeing work as what we do, not where we work. Working flexibly is about being honest and realistic and recognising what’s possible. Being your authentic self is so important. Contracting and agreeing with your manager what is actually possible is really important. Make sure you catch yourself when you’re not being true to yourself. 

Caroline: “Peace+Riot came from that area of guilt and finding a way to work where you’re not terrified of absenteeism and pressured into presenteesim. It’s specifically aimed at parents who have a three to four part day. They drop kids at school, go to work, pick them up, get home bedtime, then work again. That’s an overloaded day because everyone is trying to be the best they can be in every role. Peace+Riot is particularly for that last shift of the day, giving parents somewhere they can go and be supported in their working life. We’re trying to offer that community. Letting go of the guilt is talking about the guilt and finding people in similar situations.”

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Q: What we’re craving is real role models. Do your senior management own the fact they have picks ups from school to do? 

Catherine: “We have numerous senior managers, directors, and partners who have been open about their commitments outside of work, whether that’s looking after kids, parents or supporting a charity. It’s not a new concept. If you are upfront from the beginning about what your agreement is going to be then you are delivering on a promise. 

Q: 2020 has gifted the working world with a wealth of evidence and a social case for flexible working but there are still diehard skeptics out there. How do we not go backwards?

Simon: “There are benefits of being in the office such as collaboration and engagement. But we need to demonstrate that the impact of working flexibly doesn’t have to change that one iota. It’s a journey we need to take some of these people on. We’re starting to see green shoots.”

Catherine: “The biggest part of my job is talking to people around the business and getting them comfortable that they can employ flexibly. The key thing I would advocate to those people is that ultimately, normal has changed. If you don’t get on board you’re going to miss out on great flexible talent.”

Q: What’s your one top tip to empower people to find their ideal flex role? Mine is ‘Own who you are and the world will be your oyster.”

Simon: “Think about your whole life and intertwine work as a part of that.”

Caroline: “Look not just at your work experience, but your life experience which can be just as valuable.”

Catherine: “You are picking employers as well as them picking you. Know your skills and have confidence. Flexible working is not something to hide.”

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