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3 ways to get middle managers on board with flexible working

Study after study shows that flexible work arrangements increase productivity and make for happier employees. But at the same time study after study reveals middle managers resist the idea as undermining their control and burdening them with additional responsibilities. While your initial impulse to this reality may be to throw up your hands in frustration and declare them dinosaurs, a recent forum on paid family leave at the Ford Foundation took a more constructive approach.

Cali Williams Yost, CEO of the Flex+Strategy Group / Work+Life Fit, attended the event and wrote up an incredibly useful post on the conclusions reached for Fast Company. In her experience, she writes, simple top-down strong arming of middle managers doesn’t get results. Instead, she suggests simple but effective techniques to help them work through their objections to flexible work and win their wholehearted buy-in:

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.

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.

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.

Rather than suggest that middle managers need “bootcamp” and to be browbeaten into accepting that the future of work at their firms is more flexible, Williams Yost takes a more respectful route that treats managers like concerned and frightened humans not thick-headed impediments. And who isn’t more persuaded by respectful dialogue than insulting hectoring? William Yost’s approach seems not only more humane but also more likely to be effective. Want more details? Her post is interesting throughout and well worth a read in full.

What’s your approach to winning over remote work skeptics?  

Image courtesy Flickr user familymwr

One Response to “3 ways to get middle managers on board with flexible working”

  1. Richard Treistman

    What a great view point. We have been following the new ways in which companies are implementing flexible work situations and how companies are making great strides in doing so. However this is the first article/report I’ve seen articulating real concerns by management. Middle management should recognize, they too will gain flexibility in their work days, not just subordinates. Telework week back in March encouraged trying out remote work for one week. Perhaps this is another way to get middle management’s buy in and better feedback by simply creating your own Telework Week not attached to a sponsored event.