How To Get Middle Managers To Support Flexible Work

Last week I attended a fascinating forum on paid family leave at the Ford Foundation. As is often the case in any discussion about the demands of work and family, the need for work flexibility was front and center, with the primary challenge being, "How do we get middle managers to support it?"

Middle-manager support can be the difference between success and failure of a work flexibility strategy and, yet, it remains elusive. The advice on how to solve the problem ranges from "Put the policy in place. Tell managers this is the way it is. Reward those who do it and punish those that don’t," to "You can’t lead a horse to water. I guess you need to wait for the dinosaurs to die off [sigh]."

In my experience, a top-down policy and an ultimatum will fail. It only creates more resistance. And waiting for a generation of managers to leave is not only inefficient, but it unnecessarily leaves money on the table as the organization and its people miss out on the benefits of flexible work.

Over the years, we’ve succeeded in getting even some of the most skeptical middle managers on board the work flexibility train. But it requires a larger upfront commitment of resources (e.g. time, money, and people) than it takes to write a policy or rely on attrition. However, the return on that investment is a group of middle managers who not only accept work flexibility but understand how to use it as a powerful tool to run their business.

Here are five the ways we’ve gotten middle managers to support flexible work:

Ask middle managers to help articulate the "why" or business case for work flexibility in your organization, and then let them participate in determining what that flexibility will look like.   Interview middle managers—the supporters of flexibility as well as the naysayers. Ask them why they think it is or is not important to be more flexible in the way work is done. Encourage them to tell you how it will solve their business challenges. Gather groups of managers and employees together to expand this shared vision they’ve created. At the end of the process, people feel invested in this approach to flexible work that they developed themselves, bottom up and top down.

Allow middle managers to freely express the "prices" they fear they will pay, while also helping them to focus on the payoffs of work flexibility.  I love naysayers. When I am consulting to a group of managers about work flexibility and one of them has the courage to say, "Yeah, but I’m going to be left doing more work," I want to hug them. They are articulating one of the very real fears many of the middle managers have about changing the way work is done. When you give middle managers a chance to share those concerns freely, they are able to move beyond them. They start to see the long list of benefits from having a more flexible approach to work. But if they can’t, they get stuck behind the fears.

Make sure that work flexibility in the organization is built on a partnership model where employees have as much responsibility for the success of it as the managers do.  Too many organizations put the responsibility for all aspects of work flexibility on the middle manager. They are expected to figure out what will work for the employee, how it will be managed day-to-day, and how the work will get done. No wonder managers don’t support it! When work flexibility is a partnership between the employee and the manager, the employee takes the lead and presents a plan outlining the type of flexible work that meets their needs and the needs of the business. The employee works with the manager to ensure their job is getting done. And, if the flexibility is not succeeding, they figure out a solution together, or they agree to end it. This is a much more appealing approach. Unfortunately, very few businesses prepare their employees and middle managers to make this type of partnership succeed.

Acknowledge that middle managers are people, too, who are increasingly under pressure to deliver more with less.  Middle managers have lives outside of work as well, and might also enjoy greater flexibility to manage his or her work/life fit. Also, the pressure to achieve quarterly goals must be acknowledged in the discussion. To ignore that pressure causes the idea of flexibility to lose credibility with middle managers.

Establish the expectation, at the beginning, that any issues related to work flexibility that cause the group not to meet its goals will be resolved by everyone, not just the manager.  For example, a manager finds that having two people in the group teleworking from home on the same day causes difficulty with customer coverage. That manager would call the group together and ask them to help her come up with a way to solve the problem. She wouldn’t be expected to take it upon herself to make it work.

As long as we make middle managers solely responsible for the success of something that they don’t help create, that doesn’t acknowledge their realities, and that they don’t fully understand, flexible work will continue to hit the roadblock of their resistance and fail. 

What have you found works to get middle managers to support a more flexible approach to how, when, and where work is done?                  

Cali Williams Yost is the CEO and Founder of the Flex+Strategy Group / Work+Life Fit, Inc., flexible work and life strategy advisors to clients including BDO USA, LLP, Pearson, Inc., EMC, the U.S. Navy, and Novo Nordisk. Yost is the author of "Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You" (Riverhead/Penguin Group, 2005). Connect with Cali at the award-winning Work+Life Fit blog and on Twitter @caliyost.

[Image: Flickr user smcgee]

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  • Maria

    I manage an organization called Mom Corps that places senior level candidates in positions with clients who are able to offer them some flexibility.  The way we often persuade the client is by discussing the changing world of work, the new generation requirements that work be flexible as well as the statistics of boomers retiring in the coming years.  This is a very real reality that makes flexibility an imperative for those who will want to compete. Mom Corps itself has been foruntate enough to attract very senior level talent as franchisees by simply committing to "responsible flexibility".  That term is now a Core Value for our company!