Two secrets to a successful flexible working arrangement

Thinking businesswoman looking at clouds of shining puzzle piece

Access to a flexible – and balanced – working arrangement is one of the important fundamentals for supporting the progress of women in the workplace. At managerial levels the two most viable options tend to be job-share or a bespoke flexible arrangement.

In recent years support for job share has been gaining ground. It’s a relatively easy option to implement: it requires little change to a job’s structure, content or working arrangements; and it helps perpetuate the notion that a senior role must be covered full time.

Agreeing a bespoke flexible arrangement is often more challenging. It necessitates a review of the job description and the essential skills required of the post holder. Good HR practice recommends this should be routine every time a post becomes vacant. In fast moving workplaces the job you’ve been doing may only partly resemble the one your successor will undertake. And yet corporate cultures often continue to deny the creative possibilities inherent in many jobs.

It is of course perfectly possible to craft your own quality flexible job – but this requires time and thoughtful analysis. Something which seems to be in short supply in today’s pressurised environments. Two fundamental secrets underpin success. These are: firstly – absolute clarity and secondly – firm boundary management.

Let’s consider the example of the manager who asks to work three or four days a week to carve out some family time. Very quickly she’ll begin to feel exhausted as she tries to cram five days’ work into fewer hours. And she’s likely to end up feeling guilty that she’s not coping and letting her colleagues down. The fundamental reason for this is that she lacks absolute clarity: around her value to her employer and around the key outputs she’s been hired to deliver.

For a flexible working arrangement to succeed we must spend become very clear about the key skills we offer our employer. The ones that make us difficult to replace and that enable our contribution to the achievement of our employer’s objectives. When we identify these we’ll find it easier to craft a win-win flexible arrangement.

We must also become very skilled at managing our boundaries – particularly when it comes to our interactions with what Dr Lorenzo Bizzi terms our network contacts. These are the colleagues with whom we work and the clients for whom we provide a service. It’s not simply about learning to say no assertively; it’s also about understanding how their expectations of our role will have subtle impacts on our task activities. It’s about stakeholder management. We need to stop and ask ourselves “is this really part of my role? Do I need to do it in this way? Do I need to do it at this time?”

Many people boast of being productive by organising themselves with lists. But if you lack clarity about your job’s key purpose or you lack the skills to maintain a focus on that purpose how will you know whether you’re being productive or simply busy?

Developing a winning strategy

Indonesian woman playing chess setting figure

When I recently registered a new coaching client she told me she knew she was holding herself back. Her bosses think highly of her and she’s been encouraged to go for promotion. But she was reluctant – because she couldn’t see how to retain any semblance of work-life balance if she progressed into middle management.

After three sessions with me – and only seven weeks later – she’s a changed woman. She’s now firmly committed to renegotiating her current role for more flexibility. And to progressing her career on a more flexible basis. Naturally I’m delighted to have provided her with tools and strategies that opened more options than she’d previously imagined.

I’d like to say: “result, job done” but she and I both know that’s not the case. We know she’s at the start of her journey. She’s joined the army of female pioneers setting a new workplace agenda. And she’s consciously undertaking that role in what is an aggressively traditional workplace culture. She understands that she’s laying herself open to scrutiny and criticism. However, we’re both confident she’s not opening herself to failure.

Together we’re developing a winning strategy:

  • Before she begins renegotiating her working arrangements we’ve spent time identifying her value to her employer; and the high potential cost of losing her.
  • We’ve identified the key stakeholders she needs to influence. And as she comes from a project management background managing stakeholders is a key strength for her.
  • We’ve evaluated various flexible working options – including reduced hours, job-share and job-split – and considered both the benefits and downsides of each.
  • We’ve pinpointed her key strengths and identified areas where she needs to upskill.

So far we’ve already spent six hours talking about how she might craft a Quality Flexible Job for herself. One that supports balance while making the best use of her skills on her employer’s behalf. It’s a considerable investment in time given the busy pace at which many of us work these days. We’re certain it’s time well spent.

We’re not finished yet. When we meet again we’ll be planning how to mitigate any potential risks. Identifying small gradual steps that make up the journey to Balanced Leadership. As they say: “forewarned is forearmed”.

I mentioned last year that one of my favourite maxims is “the unit within the system with the most responses controls the system”. With my support she’s developing a range of responses, identifying small changes and making course corrections as she goes along. And that’s our winning strategy.

Crafting Balanced Jobs

Business People Support Teamwork Meeting Organizing Concept

The skill of job design has always been part of the Occupational Psychologist’s portfolio but in recent years it’s been taken a step further with the notion of job crafting. In an article in the June 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review Professor Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues describe how job crafting enables people to re-energise and re-imagine their work life and provides them with a greater feeling of control at work.

At senior levels job crafting makes a great deal of sense. When we devote many years to developing our career we also develop a unique portfolio that’s the sum total of our skills, interests, experiences and workplace encounters. It’s that unique combination that makes us valuable in our jobs and literally irreplaceable to our employers.

Think about it. If you quit your job how long will it take to find someone else with your experience? I’m not talking simply about the academic qualifications you have and the professional training you’ve undertaken. I’m also thinking of the specialist knowledge you’ve developed at your workplace and your understanding of how to make things happen in your organisation. So, rather than lose talented women struggling with work life balance job crafting offers employers a way to retain them.

The HBR article focuses on assessing and altering three core aspects of work: the tasks, the relationships and our own perceptions of our work. On the Balanced Leader Programme we follow this outline to craft jobs that better support our needs while meeting our employers’ expectations.

We begin with the tasks – by clarifying the key things you’ve been hired to do; and the outcomes best suited to your skills. We then consider which tasks can be discarded so that you find the time and space to operate more strategically. In our VUCA business environments the nature of jobs can change pretty quickly. How often do we stop to ask ourselves: “what’s the best use of my time and skills? Where does my best value to my employer lie?” Once we’ve identified working priorities we can assess the potential for time and location flexibility within them. And so we create opportunities to combine work and caring responsibilities in more balanced ways.

Then we turn our focus to relationships and identify those stakeholders – both at work and at home – key to our success. And we develop strategies for managing those relationships effectively.

As we do this so our perceptions change. We no longer see ourselves as ambitious women constrained by corporate glass ceilings. Like our mothers and grandmothers before us we’ve become pioneers remodelling the workplace for our own benefit and that of future generations.