How to be flexible without tying yourself up in knots

24 Mar 20

Being able to have a say over your working hours has great attractions for both managers and employees, if the potential pitfalls are acknowledged from the outset 

There is no doubt that the public sector has embraced the idea of flexible working. The most recent Office for National Statistics survey showed that 42% of staff in the sector were working flexibly, far outstripping their private sector colleagues, where the figure stands at only 21%.

Those working flexibly are doing so through a range of working patterns, from flexitime and compressed hours through to annualised hours and term-time only contracts. Local and national government is the second highest on the list when it comes to the proportions of staff working flexibly, with teaching taking the top spot.

The benefits of flexible working are well documented. There is an entire body of research that shows the positive impact it can have on performance, productivity and talent retention, as well as employee engagement and wellbeing. Managed poorly, however, it can become one of the biggest causes of tension and conflict within the team. These are the three key issues at play:

  1. Keeping it quiet
    Flexible working arrangements are often under the radar. Sometimes this is because managers are worried that if they make a decision to allow someone to adjust their hours or work from home, it will open the floodgates and they will not be able to cope with myriad different working arrangements. Often, it’s because they are desperate to keep hold of a talented employee, but know that despite the advantages, flexible working is still frowned on in the organisation. The trouble with this undercover approach is that it causes friction between colleagues. No-one knows quite what has been agreed, what the boundaries are or when they are able to contact their peers. People start to mutter in corners or around the water cooler, and a tense atmosphere can take hold.
  2. Perceived unfairness
    If flexible working is not an ‘up-front’ affair, people begin to suspect, rightly or wrongly, that not everyone is being treated equally. “How come she’s able to start at eight and leave at four, when I have to be here until five?” “Why is he allowed to work from home when I have to stay chained to my desk?” Resentment builds and accusations of favouritism start to fly around. Workers may even start to withdraw support from colleagues, who they think do not deserve their help as they are clearly getting a better deal. Managers find themselves having increasingly confrontational conversations with disgruntled employees. HR gets drawn in to try and sort the issue out.
  3. Lack of trust
    Managers who are new to (or not entirely supportive of) the concept of flexible working often struggle to trust employees who are out of their line of sight. There is an underlying suspicion, for example, that if someone is working from home, they have their feet up on the sofa watching Homes under the Hammer, rather than bashing away at the computer keyboard. They start to try and micro-manage their staff, constantly checking in on them rather than letting them get on with it. The employee on the receiving end, who 90% of the time is probably being more productive than if they were in the office, is upset by the obvious lack of trust. The relationship becomes scarred and may disintegrate altogether over time.

“Teams need to be clear about how arrangements will work in practice. When will colleagues be contactable? ”

What managers need to do differently

Although UK plc has made great strides in better understanding the business benefits of flexible working, there is clearly still a long way to go in understanding how to manage it effectively. So what do managers need to do to make sure it does not become a subject of team tension?

It’s vital not to let any conflict or bad feeling that arises around flexible working go unaddressed. If resentment is allowed to fester, motivation and engagement will slump, productivity will decline and relationships within the team will become irreparably damaged. The key – as with any workplace conflict – is for managers to have transparent communication with their teams. Everyone needs to understand why flexible arrangements have been agreed, or in some cases the business case behind their refusal.

Teams need to be clear about how arrangements will work in practice. When will colleagues be contactable? How will it affect the way projects are resourced? What will the impact be on clients and how will this be communicated or managed?

Managers also need to establish transparent processes for communicating with employees who may be working remotely some or all of the time. The key is to set clear objectives and to check in on these at appropriate intervals, rather than constantly looking over the employee’s shoulder and worrying about how many hours they are putting in.

Get the dialogue going around flexible working and it will deliver solid business benefits as well as a happy, motivated team. 

Top tips…


  1. Be transparent about flexible working arrangements
  2. Trust that people will get on with the job
  3. Be clear with everyone in the team about expectations and boundaries


  1. Micro-manage employees just because you can’t see them
  2. Assume that flexible working only means part-time
  3. Ignore tension around flexible working in the hope it will go away

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