The secret sauce that makes “Flexible work arrangement” actually work

The topic of “Flexible Work Arrangement” had been one of my favorite one. Being a huge advocate myself, I’ve been blogging, speaking and championing the initiative relentlessly in multiple forums. Coupled with the numerous engagements with the many HR practitioners, consulted with folks to help formulate the official policies, and seen how many of such arrangements work or not work, I realized that it is actually not as complex as what many of us thought it to be.

Instead of making you read this whole article to figure out where I’m going with this, I will just say it here! The secret sauce to making “Flexible Work Arrangement” work is, “People”

As I sit and reflect on my first encounter with having a flexible work arrangement, the year was 1998. I was an intern working on building an intranet web portal on the then very new and exciting oracle 8i platform. The ask was simple. Deliver a site that does A, B and C by the end of my internship. I turned up on the first day and was being given a quick orientation. I was provided with what I needed, a desk and a laptop. So, off I went and began working on the site.

Being in my teens, I didn’t really care about much of what’s going on at my workplace. Whether the coffee was good or the pantry was well stocked didn’t really matter. In fact, I don’t think I remember how the pantry looked like. Naturally, the concept of flexibility didn’t really resonate with me at that very point in time.

However, that soon changed. It’s called the flu bug! Being a kid at work, I didn’t know we were allowed to fall sick. Being an intern, we weren’t told that we’ve got medical insurance or health benefits. Feeling extremely gungho, I turned up at work only to be told to go home and rest the moment I stepped into office.

My very kind and understanding supervisor, followed up with an email explaining that work/ assignment is not the be all end all. He’s measuring my performance which determines if I pass my internship based on my output, and not my attendance. In his very words, “I don’t care if you code the site from Timbuktu, just make sure we’ve got something to demo in 6 weeks’ time!”. Well, I had to do an “Altavista” search on what “Timbuktu” was! And yes, I did “Altavista” “Timbuktu”, “Google” wasn’t really the search engine of choice back in those days!

My supervisor also kindly offered to reimburse my medical bill which came to about $18. It was a kind gesture, and till today, I still haven’t really figured if it’s my entitlement or he’s paid this out of his own pocket!

Looking back, I must say I was blessed to had experience real flexibility at work very early in my career. There wasn’t any policy in place that dictate what “Flexible Working” is about. There was a lot of flexibility in when we turn up for for and what time we head home. There was a whole bunch of conference call that we would dial into. Often late at night or in the wee hours. The team would be “missing” from office in the morning and only showing up conveniently for lunch.

Fast forward 18 years to today, we now have conferences dedicated to talking about such work arrangement. Consultancy helping companies to deploy such work culture. To top it off, companies are writing policies to define what this is.

I guess the elephant in the room is the mindset of the people involved. Be it the manager, yourself or your peers. How do you define flexibility? Do we draw up parameters which flexibility should occur within, or would it be more efficient to focus on results and let work happen flexibly?

Recently, someone was sharing how she’s been asked by her manager to preempt and inform her when she’ll be turning up for work late as the manager felt that she’s abusing the “flexible work arrangement” that was granted to her.

A bit of context here. This is an employee that’s struggling with trying to get her 2 kids to the childcare, beating the morning rush hour traffic to get into office on time which usually involve an hour’s drive on the road. I guess, the very nature of her reason for being late would be rather unpredictable, preempting when she would need to be late would be a quite tough. Also, given the fact that she would be in a bit of a morning mad rush, would kind of make it a very stressful moment to have to deal with.

I was also told that she had to “ask for permission” to utilise the flexibility on a “per use” basis, which made the whole experience a horrid one.

The employee did voice her difficulties with having to juggle the morning childcare duties and traffic conditions, thus preempting her manager of the possibility of being late. However, that didn’t go too well either.

Face to face meeting were deliberately scheduled to start first thing in the morning, leaving late morning free. The employee were made to stay back in office to take late night conference calls despite them having the technology to do so from home.

We could argue that it’s the employee’s fault that she’s not leaving the house earlier, planning ahead or even getting additional support. Or, we could say that despite of the availability of the flexible arrangement, there wasn’t a real intent to offer it in the first place.

Regardless of what the reason is, we need to be understand that it is the people that creates the culture. So, regardless of whatever is written into the policies, it is the people, the managers that is administrating it. If the culture and mindset is not ready to adopt the change, it is never going to happen.

Personally, I felt that we should shift our attention from looking at tackling the change at the company level. Companies should provide that baseline support, but I feel that it is time that people manager should step up and embrace the change.

After all, as people manager, we all want to be able to bring out the best in our teams.

If you’ve got any stories around flexible work arrangements, do feel free to share them!

Have a fantastic weekend!


Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

Eric Wong is APAC Head of Talent Acquisition Leader at Fitbit. His experience spans across the various human resource functions such as HR Information Systems, Business Partnering and Talent Management. Eric currently sits on the Advisory Board of the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS). Connect with him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter @ErickyWong.


1 thought on “The secret sauce that makes “Flexible work arrangement” actually work

  1. Pingback: Is “Culture” everything? – Defining the soul of an organization | Show me the Talents!

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