Before COVID-19 flipped our working life on its head, flexible working actually did what it says on the tin. Flexing the start and finish times, working an extra hour here or there to be at a school drop-off, to get to that dentist appointment, or to shoot off early miss the traffic on a Friday if you were headed off somewhere.
Remember the buzz of an early dart for a weekend trip away? Seems like a fever dream now. I never thought I’d miss asking if I could start work at 7.30am, for the pure prize of getting off early for my son’s nativity play – or just a booze-fuelled catch up with friends…
Anyway, we are where we are, keeping each other safe – let’s not dwell. What does flexible working look like, now that we only want to dip off early on a Friday for a night on the kitchen tiles? I think it’s time we challenged our approach.
When we originally went into lockdown in March, there was an element of, dare I say, novelty, to it all. We welcomed the extra time at home with loving arms, we were grateful to see the back end of our dreadful commutes and there was a real sense of camaraderie amongst teams. And, of course, it was all topped off with some glorious weather to make that hour of daily ‘exercise’ (I’m not sure my walks to the corner shop to pick up a Bounty counts) much more mood-boosting.
It feels somewhat different now. There’s a sadness in the air, the nation that came together to help one another seems to be falling apart. People are genuinely exhausted and frustrated by the fact that we’re back in lockdown 2.0, the clocks have changed making the days darker and it’s all feeling quite grey.
As senior teams, people managers, team leaders and even just as colleagues, it’s crucial that we’re mindful of this shift in our atmosphere. In fact, this might be the time to stop, check in and listen to employees again, and that doesn’t mean a routine, impersonal ‘check in’. It’s at this time that we need to be genuine with each other, be honest and truly listen. Jump on zoom and have a coffee with your team, I’m sure that thing can wait. This is an opportunity to potentially adapt, where we can, our working day to a new, flexible one.
Let me explain.
It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to walk away from work for a minute, for a few hours, or for the day.
When it all gets too much, or when that wave of helplessness hits, I’m sure we’d like to think we would say it. But would we really do it? If you’re just not feeling right today, we get it. It’s a tough time to be working in, it’s not something we’re used to or could have ever prepared for – so cut yourself some slack. Let people admit when they are struggling and allow them to take some time out. This isn’t something you can plan for and book a half day holiday, you have to listen and trust your people when they are brave enough to open up to you – and act on it.
Forcing someone to sit at their make shift desk when they’re not in the right head space is neither constructive or compassionate. Trust people, empower people to be in tune with their emotions. Taking that time out and away will allow them to get back on track and come back stronger, more positive and therefore, productive.
5 min check-ins – I’m not talking a 40 minute Teams meeting where you discuss workloads, performance and their day to day roles. There is so much more value in an unplanned, 5-min check-in with your team members to honestly see how they’re doing. It’s a chance to get to know each other and take your minds away from the stresses of the day. Just chat about anything but work… family, home life, exercise, GBBO…whatever it takes to get a feel for how they’re doing. And if they don’t want to get into work life balance or mental state, reassure them that you can help make sure that they’re getting that balance right – and can take this offer up whenever it suits them, no pressure.
24 hours in a day – Other than the whole exercise and grocery shop fix, 24 hours in a day in the house is a lot for people. So, what if the working day could stop and start at any time in that 24 hours? Obviously ensuring that deadlines and tasks are met. But, what if we said just work when you can in the day?
I’ll give you an example – at the moment, I’m struggling to work after 4.00pm from home. I’ve got two teenagers bursting in from school, ransacking the cupboards for food, then there’s the great battle of homework v PlayStation, then food… again?! And even though most of the time they just grunt, the general noise levels in the house are up 100% from my 9-4pm tranquillity – making it impossible to concentrate.
So, I tend to get up at 6.00am to do a couple of hours when the house is quiet. At 4.00pm, unless I need to be on a call or have a deadline to meet, I take a few hours off to feed, tidy and attempt to support them doing homework. Then, like lions when they are fed, watered and sleepy, I jump back on to finish off anything that needs doing. But, honestly, I’d endure my peak household times over peak northern rail times, any day.
It works for me. It doesn’t impact on any deadlines, clients are blissfully unaware of the working day changes and my stress levels are all good. I’ve established my new ‘flexible working hours’. I’m making the most of that 24-hour day, to achieve what I need to do and make sure I have time for my life too.
How can we work with our teams so they can better shape their working day? To use the 24 hours in a day to their advantage? Support them in finding the balance that works for them – I can guarantee it will improve productivity, positivity and mental wellbeing. Yes, there will always be deadlines to meet. But if there’s understanding, trust and collaboration, there’s no reason why it won’t work.
Which brings me onto the fundamental key to the world’s new, flexible working scenario, TRUST.
Build a foundation of trust and respect – they are vital for a happy working environment, a productive team and a strong company culture. If you trust your team, let them take time out if they’re not feeling it. Let them work 7pm- 11pm because it’s quieter than the afternoons. Let them deliver their best work, with the best version of themselves.