Flexible Workplace: Are your valuable employees unhappy?

Most of us have read many articles emphasizing the importance of flexibility, work/life balance, and adapting to ever-changing workforce demands. LinkedIn is full of anecdotal tales recounting courageous moments when managers chose to defy company policy to be compassionate along with employees who dared challenge the status quo.

We love to applaud these stories because they bring a human element into the unpleasant rigidity of the traditional corporate environment, but this post will focus on a different aspect of resetting organizational boundaries and norms – a group of people who may struggle with spontaneous and intermittent deviations from existing company policies: The rule-followers.

These employees are driven by an inherent sense of duty to fulfill their obligations and meet the expectations that have been set forth. Their punctuality, consistency, preparedness, and reliability are a critical component of every organization. Other personality types may view rule-followers as a hinderance to greater flexibility and freedom, and in many cases, this is due to a mischaracterization in what rule-followers truly oppose.

Here’s the core problem: When we praise and allow individual actions that promote balance and accommodation without changing the perceived expectations, we leave dutiful employees in a cognitive bind. They are not likely to be comfortable taking advantage of looser guidelines unless they’re reflected in company policies and made known throughout the organization. Furthermore, it may leave them feeling resentment towards employees who have no trouble with blurred lines and gray areas.

John has no problem slipping out a little early to hit the gym a couple times a week, but Jane is overwhelmed by the feeling that she’s not meeting her obligations if she leaves early for personal reasons. Asking for help with a looming deadline feels completely reasonable to John, but the same request leaves Jane feeling like a failure.

As we fight to bring the “human” element back into human resources, it’s our job to remember those who are not seen. Amidst the glamorous HR initiatives with high visibility and big cultural impact, it’s easy to forget about the employees who don’t make a lot of noise when they’re unhappy. If flexibility and work/life balance are important to your organization, make sure you’ve given everyone the mental option to enjoy those initiatives. Here are a few tips to help accomplish this:

  1. Suggest. In an ideal world, employees and managers would have an open discussion about what the company needs and what the employee needs, and they would find a reasonable and mutually beneficial arrangement. However, rule-followers may not consider anything outside of normal operations to be an option, and they may be uncomfortable requesting anything that places them outside of the perceived rules. Ask questions to determine the primary sources of their stress, and then suggest ways that the company might be able to help accommodate. Your suggestions might open them up to solutions they had not bothered to entertain.
  1. Awareness. The last thing rule-followers want is to be perceived by others as a rule-breaker. Make sure that everyone is aware of any new policies (official or unofficial) or changes that have been put in place. If Jane is going to start working from home a few days a week or start working non-standard hours, announce the change to her department and/or team. This will help ease her concern that others perceive her as not meeting expectations.
  1. Accountability. Some employees will choose to abuse a flexible work environment. When John leaves early on a regular basis, he may be leaving behind work that needs to be completed, or he may be unavailable when his client needs help at the end of the day. It may not be apparent to managers, but it will be painfully apparent to those on John’s team. Instead of allowing these employees to ruin a good thing, clearly defining responsibilities and accountability measures will help weed out individuals who aren’t carrying their weight. Otherwise, your most dutiful employees will feel obligated to pick up the slack.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease, but sometimes the quiet wheels need attention, too.