Feb 25, 2014

One of the great myths of management is that supervisors want their employees to work long hours. Many employees think their hours are 9 to “whenever my boss leaves.”

This leads some to believe they have to forget about a personal life if they want to make a good impression because the boss wants face (until the end of) time.

The reality is supervisors are often at a loss when it comes to scheduling or providing employees with more flexible work arrangements because they often don’t have the control or training needed to make the most out of the hours being clocked.

When employee frustration sets in

I’m pointing this out because a recent story in The Wall Street Journal titled When the Boss Works Long Hours, Must We All? got a lot of folks pointing the finger at managers.

One commenter on the article wrote:

Many bosses often work long hours because they are micromanagers or toxic managers. They are spending so much time micromanaging or screwing with their people that they don’t have enough time during the normal working day to get their own job done.”

Clearly there are bad managers out there, but employees tend to believe the myth that supervisors are totally in charge of things like staff schedules, hours, remote work options and other ways in which employers can be flexible.

With such little control or predictability in their hours, many employees can become frustrated and leave otherwise beloved jobs. Many supervisors don’t set out to frustrate their employee’s lives but may become focused on hours worked when they don’t have better options for gauging performance.

Getting permission for flexible solutions

As the story in the Journal points out, supervisors that get clear and consistent updates about an employee’s progress are less likely to obsess about their office hours.

When a supervisor says no to a flexibility request, the assumption is that they are just being mean. Relatively few employees are privy to the secret that their supervisors are just as challenged by their job of coordinating the work of others as are the people doing the work.

When situations arise where supervisors need to be flexible, they can become a roadblock, not because they want to be inflexible but because the 10 minutes of manager training they received when they were hired didn’t include adapting to new situations and spent nine minutes on some variation of “don’t do anything the legal department hasn’t pre-approved.”

It can be hard for supervisors to come up with and get permission for flexible solutions, and faced with a problem they are unprepared to solve the easiest thing is just to say no.

The following 10 tips are part of the missing 60 seconds of manager training on how to find the flexibility and work process that’s right for employees, supervisors and the business.

1. Start the conversation

When the supervisor takes the lead in inviting conversations about flexibility, employees will be more trusting that the supervisor is open to being flexible and it’s safe for employee and supervisor to have an honest conversation.

Tell all your staff members that they should speak to you as soon as any work-life conflicts emerge. Be explicit that you would rather help them make it work from the start than see their wellbeing and performance suffer because they try to handle it on their own.

2. Set expectations

When the employee comes to you they may not know what is possible and may be afraid of repercussions to their job/career.

Help the employee understand that you and the organization are committed to looking for a mutually beneficial solution where their needs AND business requirements are met. This keeps the employee hopeful without setting expectations higher than is reasonable given their job and the business needs.

3. Focus on describing the problem, not the solution

Employees can get stuck on suggesting the solution they have in mind and not thinking more broadly, especially if they are not fully aware of business demands and possibilities.

Help the employee describe their actual flexibility needs so you and they can identify the full range of possible solutions.

4. Review the employee’s job description and team work processes

What is absolutely essential to business functions? What must absolutely be done by the employee in certain places or at certain times? Are those things really that essential? Really?

Imagine how you’d manage if the employee won the lottery and quit tomorrow, you’ll probably find that you have more ways to get the work done than just having that one employee work 9-5.

Are any of the employee’s tasks flexible in when and who does them? Are there tasks that can be traded around to open up more time? Are there things that can be postponed, rescheduled or canceled as unnecessary?

5. Don’t start problem solving with formal programs

Starting with programs limits innovative problem solving.

Start with an understanding of the problem and the kinds of modifications to work needed to resolve the conflicts. Then look for formal programs and informal workarounds that can make things the work.

6. Approach the problem as a team effort

Ask yourself how your team can be involved in creating more options?

A lot of workplace flexibility solutions require the entire work team to be effective and many employees are happy to help one another, especially if it means they can also count on the team to support them in the future.

7. Provide projections about the future:

If the flexibility plan is simply rearranging work patterns make sure everyone knows how performance will be assessed especially if an employee is working remotely.

Plan opportunities for high-quality face-time, such as important presentations and other opportunities to showcase the flexing employee’s/team’s work. If the employee is cutting back on his/her contributions (not just hours) make sure the employee has a clear picture of what that means for promotions, raises, and other long-term outcomes.

8. Don’t underestimate the employee

Even people in the midst of stressful periods, like high-demand caregiving have more resources than others may realize. Don’t ever withhold challenging assignments because you think they can’t handle it and their caregiving responsibilities.

Too many caregivers get family tracked because a temporary burst in family responsibilities colors a supervisor’s assumptions about the employee’s long-term plans. Talk to the employee first and determine whether they think they can handle it before you make your decision.

This doesn’t mean the employee makes the final decision but it does keep well-meaning supervisors from accidentally ending a promising employee’s career because of a relatively limited time of high demand caregiving.

9. Understand the employee’s emotional state

Caregiving is a very emotional experience and sometimes it is happy (as in raising a child), sad (as when caring for a dying family member) or mixed (as when caring for a loved one recovering from an illness or with a serious but stable condition).

Recognize that their approach may not always seem perfectly sensible to you but it probably makes perfect sense to them as they cope with the transition to and maintenance of their professional and caregiving responsibilities. For example, an employee may not want to discuss the work conflicts brought on by a sad situation for fear of an “unprofessional outburst” in the office.

Look for ways in which you can have constructive and private conversations about the situation and let employees know that there are appropriate ways to express their emotions in the workplace. For example, an employee may just need to state that they are struggling at the start of a meeting so that others can understand why they may seem distracted one day.

Another employee may need a private place to compose themselves (like an empty office) that won’t disturb other employees but isn’t as embarrassing as hiding in a bathroom stall or as disruptive as taking a day off.

10. Take care of yourself

Supervisors often forget that you can’t support your staff if you aren’t supporting yourself. Acknowledge how the situation makes you feel: sad for the employee, afraid for your work, frustrated at having to figure something out, etc.

It’s OK to have mixed motives (caring for the employee, the business, your team, and yourself) in this process. The best results will come from considering all stakeholders and how they all can improve the results.

Set reasonable expectations for yourself as a supervisor. Give employees room to express their feelings while keeping the focus of any conversation on developing effective workplace solutions. You have to take their emotions into account but you are not responsible for making the employee feel better.

You may not be able to solve any underlying issues but you can help the employee keep his/her career and income intact, making it that much easier to handle whatever caregiving situation they have.

This was originally published on the Families and Work Institute blog