Making culture work in a flexible organisation

Emma O’Connor explores the steps businesses can take to develop an environment that fosters flexibility for both people and employer

Getty Images

We’re still wading through so many issues connected with flexible working. What’s clear is that organisations are still trying to find the balance. There are many competing legal and cultural considerations; however, businesses should first think about how they want their employees’ working week to look, and how this supports their clients or services so all know what they’re working towards.

Once you have that in place, you can go back to the employment contract to factor in legal considerations such as working hours or place of work. What flexibility is there to amend contractual terms and what are the risks? Companies should avoid unilaterally changing terms and conditions of employment. From April 2024, the statutory right to request flexible work becomes a day-one right for employees. How will the extension of the right impact upon recruitment decisions or in-work requests for a permanent change?

For many employers, flexibility in how people work can create tensions, particularly where a business has a front and back-end side. For example, head office and the operations teams versus the customer-facing sales side. While the front end may not be able to work from home, those in more back-office roles potentially can. This inevitably creates conflict in the business and a sense of unfairness. This requires ongoing management and communication.

Balance organisational needs with individual autonomy 

Managers are constantly navigating demands between the collective and the individual. While managers are looking at what’s best for the business, employees are asking: ‘How do I want to work?’ The how, when and where can become a point of conflict. This is where your managers come into play. While this means setting expectations around how you want the work to be done, there must be an acceptance that we’re not going back to 9-5, five days a week in the office. If you don’t offer that degree of flexibility, other employers will: and clearly engaged teams working from home are more effective than disgruntled teams in the office. 

Look at how you can balance the individual need and contribution against the client, business and team need. There must be flexibility both ways. While it might be better for an employee with two school-aged kids to work from home, we find more Gen Z colleagues want to be in the office – for support, encouragement and mentoring as much as for social considerations. It’s because of these diverse and varying needs that things become complex and we can lose sight of our workplace culture.

Managers as a superpower  

Ensuring your managers have the skillsets to support your culture is essential. The key skills for flex managing will be around communication:

  • How do you communicate on a team level and ask the right questions?
  • Are we meeting for this project update? Do we need to meet? 
  • Are we bringing everyone along with us or just people we can see?

Listening is essential too, and especially in flexible work environments it means looking for those non-verbal cues. For example, does the same person always have their camera off on calls? What does that tell you? Where might they need support to be more visible and engaged?

Managers essentially need to be the chief cheerleading officer. This goes beyond focusing on the bottom line to taking a more holistic approach. Yes, productivity and utilisation are still important; however, in flexible workplaces, where you’re just getting a snapshot into someone’s working life, you must be more than delivering hard facts. How can you bring people together to create a sense of belonging and connection when you aren’t connected every day? How can you collaborate more? Listen more? It’s about being more human. And it’s a tough one to train.

Managing culture in a flexible workplace 

As leaders, we need to define what managing culture means: setting expectations, creating trust, resisting micromanaging, looking for outputs and not focusing on presenteeism. All while making it clear that you’re still a team, within an organisation. Have a team day or agreement when all of you are in the office for a key purpose. Think about what brings you together as a team and organisation while focusing on the value-adds you can offer in a flexible environment: one to ones, regular check-ins, making sure people have enough work – or not too much.

Psychological safety is a key factor in any organisation – as important whether working in a hybrid capacity or in the office. This means feeling that you are trusted to do your job and have autonomy, while also knowing you can ask for help if you need it. Creating that safety culture is essential: people need to know where they can ask questions and be listened to.

We need to remember too that so much about work is more than the work itself. The classic water cooler catch-up, the spontaneous coffee you grab with a colleague – these are so important for organisational culture and happy teams as well as cultivating personal networks giving our colleagues the ability to thrive. 

Emma O’Connor is director of HR training at Boyes Turner