How to Get Middle Managers To Support Flexible Work

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(This post originally appeared in FastCompany.com)

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… (For more, please click here)

I invite you to join me on Twitter @caliyost.

How to Move Past the Fear “If I Give Flexibility to You, Everyone Will Want It”

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(This post originally appeared in Forbes.com)

Even though 82% of the respondents to our 2011 Work+Life Fit Reality Check national study of full-time employees said that they had some form of work flexibility, I still hear stories of people experiencing resistance from their managers because of the “floodgates fear.”  What’s the floodgates fear? The scenario looks something like this:

Employee to manager: Susan, here’s my plan to work from home every Wednesday. I’ve outlined how I’m going to get my work done, how I’m going to communicate and handle any unexpected needs that might come up.”

Manager to employee: “Chris, this flexible work plan looks terrific, but if I give to you then everyone is going to want it.”

Susan, the manager, has been paralyzed by the fear that the floodgates for work flexibility will open and chaos will ensue. In fact, one manager confessed that he became so frightened that he imagined that he was in a big white room with hundreds of desk. On each desk was a phone. All of the phones were ringing and he was the only person in the room to answer them.

The managers who usually struggle most either haven’t ever had an employee work flexibly, or they’ve tried it in the past and it didn’t work.

So how do you help your manager move beyond the fear that the flexible work floodgates will open?  Here are a few tips:

Don’t take their reaction personally. Realize this fear is so common amongst managers that it has its own name, the Floodgates Fear. It’s based upon the very real concern that if they allow you to work differently, then suddenly they will be inundated with requests. The manager doesn’t want to be the bad guy or gal and have to say “no,” but they also have a business to run. If you don’t take their reaction personally, then you can work together to come up with a compromise that’s comfortable for everyone. You do this when you…

Agree to keep the lines of communication open with your manager. Another big fear that managers have about flexible work is that once they say “yes,” to a specific plan they can never ask to change it. The reality is that circumstances do change. It will give your manager a sense of comfort to know that if they need to come to you and say, “You know what, I can’t have two people working from home on Tuesdays. It’s affecting customer service on those days,” that your reaction will be, “Okay, let’s talk about how to fix it.”  This will…(For more, please click here)

The Workplace Challenges Political Candidates Have to Address

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It’s not your grandpa’s workplace anymore, but if you listen to the presidential and congressional candidates, it’s easy to wonder if they’re aware that it’s 2012, not 1972. This is especially true for issues related to work and life in a modern, hectic, global, high-tech world.

Addressing these issues isn’t “nice, but non-urgent.” They directly impact the economic growth agenda that the candidates say is their primary focus. Productivity and innovation can’t happen without considering the reality people face on and off the job.

Now, I’m not saying government can solve all of the challenges. In fact, employers and individuals also need to act and think differently if we are going to construct a new model of prosperity for all. But public policy plays a role and must catch up.

I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but we need to start a serious debate grounded in today’s world.  Here are the six present-day work and life questions I wish every candidate for president and Congress would acknowledge. Doing so would let voters know that at least they understand the issues exist.

Questions #1 and #2: Who is going to care for the aging population? How are caregivers supposed to provide that care while working, and how are they supposed to pay for it?

If there’s one issue looming on the horizon that’s going to slam full force into businesses of all sizes and their employees (men and women), it’s eldercare. In terms of who will provide care, it’s not going to be a current or former stay-at-home parent or spouse:

  • First, most parents work for pay. A new study by the Center for American Progress found that, “in 2010, among families with children, 49% were headed by two working parents and 26% by a single parent.” In other words, only 29% of children have a stay-at-home parent.
  • Second, we can’t assume that stay-at-home parents want to become primary eldercare providers. It is a very different and, in many ways, more difficult type of care.
  • Third, today, “more than 50% of U.S. residents are single, nearly a third of all households have just one resident…By 2000, 62% of the widowed elderly lived alone.” In other words, in many cases, there is no one else in a household to provide direct, local care. And that trend is growing.

Employers aren’t dealing with the reality at all. In fact, according to a new study by the National Alliance for Caregiving, only 9% of employers offered referrals for eldercare in 2011, down from 22% in 2007.

And, individuals are equally as unprepared. According to Denise Brown, founder of Caregiving.com, most people believe Medicare will pay for and provide care, which is not true. As a result, families don’t plan or budget and are overwhelmed financially, physically, and emotionally. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for a growing number of men and women to fully contribute at work.

Question #3: How are you going to support and promote greater work flexibility?

Work flexibility offers many benefits to businesses and people. After almost two decades in the trenches working with organizations and individuals, I don’t believe the government can mandate flexibility. Each business and each person is too different for a one-size-fits-all approach to flexibility to succeed. However, there are issues the government can address that stand in the way of progress:  (Click here for more on FastCompany.com)

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @caliyost.

Avoid the Five Mistakes That Keep Your Life Unbalanced and Your Workplace Inflexible

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I’ve decided to use Slide Share more often to share the PowerPoint slides from some of my speeches. Here is the slide deck from this week’s Jam Session for 85 Broads! Let me know if you find it helpful.

Focus on “How” Not the “Why” for Flexible Work Success

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What’s one of the biggest mistakes that I see people make when they present a proposal to work more flexibly to their manager? They focus on “why” they want to work differently, when they should emphasize “how” they are going to get their job done.

Here’s a true story that a manager shared with me that perfectly illustrates the different response you will get.

A young man walks into the manager’s office.  He explains that he’d like to talk about shifting his hours to come in by 11:00 am on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and leave later in the evening. This new schedule will help him train for a marathon, “because it’s getting too dark to run at night.” The manager confessed that his response was, “Yeah, and I’d like to ride in a hot air balloon on Wednesdays.  I’m going to have to say ‘No’.”

Thankfully, the young man came back the next day and took a different approach. He never mentioned marathon training. Instead he focused on how he would get his work done with the new schedule, how he would communicate with customers and his team, and how he would come in if something important needed to get done.  And he would be happy to review the flexible work plan in three months. The manager thought about it and responded, “Okay, let’s give it a shot.”

The manager telling the story said that the first time he felt like he was being asked to do an unreasonable favor. But the second time, the young man had reframed the proposal as a win-win and he felt comfortable saying “yes.” Same proposal, different response.

This is even more critical when you are asking for flexibility to address a personal issue that would be very difficult to say “no” to based on the reason alone…(For more go to Forbes.com)

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In the News: Work+Life Fit and Flex+Strategy

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I may be back in my book writing cave for the next week finishing up this round of edits, but I’ve read some great articles that have been published recently on a variety of work+life fit and flex+strategy topics.  I’m honored that the authors included my thoughts.  Enjoy!

The Hard-numbers Case for a Flexible Workplace by Geri Stengel for Inc.com

The Secret of Success: Needing Less Sleep? by Laura Vanderkam in CNNMoney.com

10 Tips for Landing a Flexible Job by Miriam Salpeter for USNews.com

How Changing Corporate Culture is Good for Business and Employees by Geri Stengel for Forbes.com

How Shift in Workplace Culture Can Help Small Businesses, Non-profits by Geri Stengel for Ventureneer.com

Does Your Boss E-mail You at 5:00 a.m.? by Harvey Schachter for The Globe and Mail

Also, check out my suggestions in “The Recommender” column in Fast Company’s February issue…you might be surprised!

See you in a couple of weeks!

Think You Don’t Benefit Directly from Childcare? 3 “What’s In It for Me” That Will Change Your Mind

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In her recent article “Occupy (Working) Motherhood,” Deborah Siegel makes the compelling case that our society still has a long way to go to support mothers who work, especially when it comes to affordable, quality childcare.

To understand the roadblocks that stand in the way of improving the state of childcare, you have to look no further than a comment left by a reader in response to Siegel’s article. The commenter explained,

By “affordable,” I assume you mean “subsidized by others outside my family.” Thanks, I’m spending enough on my own kids (and my wife chooses not to work outside the home) without having to subsidize your parenting choices.

In other words, if you have a child and you work, then you need to shoulder the entire expense of that child’s caregiving. And if you can’t, it’s not my problem because I don’t directly benefit from a system of affordable, high-quality childcare.

While it’s understandable how someone could reach that conclusion, the truth is that people who don’t have children or don’t use high quality, affordable childcare do in fact directly benefit in ways that aren’t necessarily apparent.

We need to do a much better job of explaining these “WIIFMs” or the “what’s in it for me” impacts if we wanted to make progress in this area.

So here are the “WIIFMs” I’ve observed over my 15 years in the trenches helping hundreds of organizations develop strategies to address work+life fit challenges. Hopefully they will encourage support because everyone will understand that they do benefit in the following ways:

WIIFM #1: Your colleagues with children aren’t distracted by breakdowns in care which benefits you. A few years ago, as part of a broader work-life strategy review and update for a Fortune 500 company, we conducted an ROI study of the organization’s childcare center system. The truth was that management was getting pressure to cut this benefit that was seen as unfairly favoring parents over other employees.

As I analyzed the data from our surveys, I wasn’t surprised by how much parents said their productivity and engagement increased from having the consistent, high quality care the center offered. What shocked me was how much their coworkers said they benefited by having more focused, less distracted colleagues.

Once all of the calculations were finished, we estimated that the ROI for the center annually was approximately 125%. Not bad.  Needless to say, the centers stayed. The bottom line is that you benefit when the parents you work with have support.

This doesn’t mean that the alternative answer to try to minimize the number of parents in the workplace through discriminating hiring practices. First, people are going to keep having kids. Second, you will lose many of your best and brightest employees and coworkers.  The better option is to support the creation of high quality, affordable care options either in house or in the community.  It’s the gift that will keep on giving to everyone.

WIIFM#2: The parents who provide important services that you count on will be able to show up and do their jobs. You can’t get a stronger “WIIFM” than that.  I was at a conference a couple of years ago where a team of researchers from Cornell presented their study of the impact of a grant in New York City that created a system of high-quality, in-home childcare providers. The grant also subsidized the cost of care for parents who were home health aides and guards in the New York City school system.

I wish I had a link to the study itself but here are a couple of the findings that stuck with me:

  • By training and licensing the in-home care providers, they created well-paying jobs that in many cases allowed the providers to expand and improve the services they offered.
  • The parents who had access to the affordable, high-quality care reported major improvements in a number of job performance metrics including fewer absences, less tardiness, more engagement on the job, fewer incident reports, etc.

In other words, because they had consistent, reliable care for their children, the guards in the schools were to show up more regularly and do their jobs better. This directly benefits you if your child goes to that school.  He or she is safer. Home health aides were able to show up to care for you aging parents or your ailing spouse. This directly benefits you because you are able to go to work.

WIIFM #3: A high quality, affordable system of support will be there if you need it (and there’s a good chance that you or someone you love will need it.) Building a system of high-quality, affordable childcare doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes years. Thankfully organizations like the United Way through its Success by Six initiative, as well as community advocacy groups like Long Island’s Early Years Institute are leading the charge even in the face of ongoing government cuts to funding. But as Siegel points out in her article, their efforts haven’t been able to make a difference for many parents.

Maybe you don’t need high quality, reliable child care today. And perhaps you never will. But that can change overnight. Over the years, I’ve met parents who, through an unexpected shift in circumstance like illness, death or divorce, find themselves needing care only to realize how hard it is to find. I’ve met grandparents who never had to access child care themselves, but now have a daughter struggling to provide for her family as a single mother without consistent, reliable support for her children.

Maybe the lack of affordable, quality care childcare doesn’t mean anything to you today, but you and those you love directly benefit from the insurance of knowing it’s there should you ever need it.

Many priorities are vying for limited resources on the local, state and federal level. However, in the debate regarding the need to create a system of high-quality, affordable childcare, the position that, “I don’t need to support it because I won’t use childcare and I won’t benefit” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. You do benefit. We all benefit. Now, the question becomes, what are we going to to to make it better…finally?  What do you think?

If you haven’t already, I invite you to connect with me on Twitter @caliyost.

“The Iron Lady” and the Truth About Aging We’re Afraid to Face

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As I watched Meryl Streep accept the Academy Award for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady”, I reflected the following reactions I had to the movie:

  1. How did Meryl Streep literally transform herself into Margaret Thatcher?  (It’s truly unbelievable)
  2. Even though I’d been in high school, college, and even lived in England briefly during Margaret Thatcher’s term as Prime Minister, I’d forgotten how tumultuous and violent that period had been. It puts today’s global economic turmoil into perspective.
  3. I completely understand why Margaret Thatcher would imagine that her beloved husband, Dennis, was still alive long after he’d died. I’d probably do the same.
  4. And finally, no matter how rich and powerful we may be at one time in our lives and careers, we all grow old. None of us will escape it. I hope the contrast between Margaret Thatcher’s ascent to power and her eventual descent into dementia finally sparks an important conversation about the truth of aging.

So, imagine my surprise when I read reviews of the film that expressed the absolute opposite response. Commentators were dismayed over the portrayal of her advancing dementia. They felt it was “unkind,” “unnecessary, “despicable.”

While I respect the desire to focus solely on the noteworthy and sometimes controversial achievements of Prime Minister Thatcher, her aging is also part of the story.

As Meryl Streep explained so eloquently when she received the best actress award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for her role (link to video):

(The goal of the film was) to look at the life of the Iron Lady inside and out and to locate something real, maybe hidden, but truthful in the life of someone we all decided we know everything about already.”

If we can’t witness the entire arc of the life of one of the most powerful leaders in modern history, how can we begin to grapple what the later stage of life will require of us personally, of our families, and of our society? To me, doing so doesn’t take away from achievement and contributions; it only makes them more human.

What do you think? How can we become more comfortable discussing all of the stages of life and work? Our own, but also of those we love? Does it matter?

6 Ways to Promote Work Flexibility Culture Change

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Our client, the professional services firm BDO, recently produced a short video about their award-winning approach to work and life flexibility.  Here are the six lessons every organization can takeaway from the clip to help better position flexible work as part of the culture, or the way the business and people operate every day:

Lesson 1: Language matters. BDO Flex is a “strategy.”  It’s about getting work done, serving clients, and managing people.  It’s not a program or policy.  There are policies to support various aspects of the strategy (e.g. compensation, telework equipment) but “flexibility” itself is not a policy.  There are programs that use BDO Flex, but “flexibility” is not a program.

Lesson 2: The employee AND the business must succeed for flexibility to work. All of the stories and key themes in the video reinforce the point of “dual” benefit and impact:

  • ReThink–The possibilities are endless
  • ReFresh–You work hard. Use Flex to recharge
  • ReDefine–Don’t accept business as usual
  • ReDiscover–Don’t lose sight of your dreams
  • ReAssure–Small changes can make a big impact

Lesson 3: Take the time and invest the resources to create a shared vision of success that anchors the strategy. It took months for the firm to create the “BDO Thrives on Flexibility” vision statement, but that process changed hearts and minds and created a shared understanding which moved the culture.

Lesson 4: Flexibility is not just about formal flexible work arrangements. It’s about both formal and informal, day-to-day flexibility in how, when and where you work and manage your life. It’s not an “arrangement,” but a well thought out plan tailored to meet your unique needs and the needs of the business.

Lesson 5: Men and women want and use work flexibility. Work flexibility is not a women’s issue.  It’s a strategy to help all people fit the unique pieces of their lives together in a competitive, hectic, global economy and for businesses to work smarter and better.

Lesson 6: Flexibility is not about child care only. Yes, parents absolutely need to work flexibly; however, as the video shows so do employees who have spouses who relocate, who have a passion for ballroom dancing or cartoon drawing, and who want to stay healthy.  And it’s for leaders who want to reduce the level of employee burnout and service clients better.

What other lessons did you learn from watching how one organization is talking about and positioning strategic flexibility in their business?  What is your organization doing?

If you haven’t already, I invite you to connect with me on Twitter @caliyost!

It’s 10 P.M., Do You Know Where Your Employees Are? 4 Steps to Set After-Hours Work Expectations

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The other day I sat with three senior leaders from three different industries. One was the CEO of an international PR and communications firm. One was a partner of a professional services firm, and the other the president of a national not-for-profit. As it often does, our discussion about work and life turned to technology. I asked them how they used their smartphones and laptops to stay connected to work after traditional business hours:

”I keep my phone on 24/7, but I don’t respond to everything, all the time.”–CEO of the PR and communications firm.

“I sometimes send emails at 4 a.m., and on the weekends just to get a jump-start on my day and week.”–president of the national not-for-profit.

“My phone goes in my briefcase when I get home and I don’t look at it again until the next morning.”–partner of a professional services firm.

Three leaders, with three very different uses of technology. So I asked them, “How many of you have sat down with all of your direct reports and explained how you prefer to connect with work, and specified what you expect of them?”

All three shook their heads and said some variation of the following statement, “No, I haven’t done that, but they all know that I don’t expect them to do what I do.” My response was, “I’ll bet that isn’t true,” and I shared what I see too often in many organizations:

Leaders fail to clarify their personal preferences for staying connected to work with technology, and don’t share their expectations of the responsiveness with their direct reports. This leads to misguided assumptions that can wreak havoc on the work/life balance of their employees. And most leaders have no idea any of this is happening.

Here’s my advice:

Recognize that you have to initiate the conversation with your direct reports. They won’t because they don’t want you to misinterpret their questions as, “I don’t want to work hard.” For example, I worked with a senior leader who always caught the 5:00 a.m. bus to the office. On his ride, he did all of his emails and was so pleased that his team were “morning people, too–they get right back to me!” Imagine his surprise when I told him, “Actually, many are setting alarms for 5 a.m. to be awake and reply to you.” “What?!” he responded, “Why didn’t they say anything?” To the person, they all told me they were afraid he would question their commitment if they did.

Decide what you really expect in terms of response and connection. Part of the problem is that leaders are so busy using technology to manage their own work/life balance that they haven’t thought about what they actually expect from their team. The leader who emailed from the bus at 5:00 a.m. told everyone that if he really needed them he’d call their mobile phones. If an email was priority, he’d identify it. Otherwise feel free to respond whenever they can.

Have a meeting, state the parameters clearly, and then be consistent. People watch the behavior of leaders like a hawk. If there’s even a whiff of inconsistency between what you told them and how you actually behave, they will go back to assuming they need to follow your technology schedule. So if you state, “You don’t need to respond to emails at night, I’ll call you if anything is urgent,” don’t penalize someone who missed an important issue because they didn’t answer an email, but were never called.

Finally, keep the lines of communication open and encourage ongoing clarification. Assumptions people make about their manager’s expectations are rarely accurate, especially when it comes to connection and access to work via technology. Set the record straight. It’s an easy way to offer your people more control and consistency over the way work fits into their lives–something we all need.

If you’re a manager, have you clarified your expectations of access and connectedness with your direct reports? If you haven’t, why not? If you did, what did you learn? What difference did it make?

(This post originally appeared in Fast Company)