Canadian Underwriter

6 tips for flexible work arrangements when everyone has different needs

November 3, 2021   by Jason Contant

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As employees increasingly return to the physical office in one form or another, one thing is certain: it will be tough to satisfy everyone and there will always be employees who want or need something else.

So, what’s a leader in Canada’s property and casualty insurance industry to do? An author for a recent Harvard Business Review blog said there are six practical approaches employers (not specific to P&C) could take without creating a chaotic mess of confusing, arbitrary exceptions.

  1. Start one-on-one to understand real employee needs

Management consultant and executive coach Liz Kislik said that before structuring schedules or work formats, take steps to learn about employees’ current situations in terms of physical work locations and scheduling, and gauge their satisfaction with work assignments and career trajectory.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • How well has your team been working together?
  • Do you have access to the decision-makers you need?
  • How well have you been able to arrange cross-functional collaborations?
  • Are there tools, information, or other kinds of support that would help you perform better?
  • How comfortable do you feel about your current work situation?

“You won’t be able to satisfy every preference, but when employees trust that you have their best interests in mind, the likelihood of improved retention, productivity, and innovation increases,” Kislik wrote Oct. 25 in the blog, Creating Flex Work Policies … When Everyone Has Different Needs.

  1. Avoid overemphasizing self-care in your messaging

It’s great to encourage employees to take care of themselves — even to strengthen their boundaries between work and personal time.

“But if you put too much focus on their personal responsibility for feeling better and not enough on structural reforms to provide more realistic assignments, support, and development, it will look like you’re externalizing the negative impact of work problems into your employees’ lives,” said Kislik.

She recommends making a point of helping employees with whatever challenges they’re facing, then only emphasize what they can do for themselves after you’ve already demonstrated some investment in their well-being.

  1. Ensure alignment with your own employer branding

If you have a history and culture that treats employees as crucial stakeholders, they’ll expect you to give significant consideration to their preferences and needs. Accommodate individual needs for schedule adjustments and even modifications to responsibilities when people are under “particular duress.”

If you’ve emphasized that your employees are your most important asset, provide resources and communicate how employees can use them to ensure their well-being (and that of their families). This might include financial support or childcare or eldercare or mental health services.

  1. Learn what your people have missed about being together

Ask what employees missed most about their colleagues and which reasons to be together they hungered for during the pandemic.

Focus on these reasons as the core of a regrouping strategy to help secure commitments to be physically present and reassure employees it’s worth it to be on-site, Kislik wrote in the blog.

Similarly, recognize which former physical gatherings employees were relieved not to have to attend — for example, the most unproductive or unpleasant meetings — and do not reconvene them. Instead, rely on the new solutions you found while people were required to work from home.

  1. Be willing to suspend pre-pandemic rules and precedents

Previously, many organizations ensured that individual accommodations were few and far-between, and reserved only for drastic crises such as a death in the family or a car accident.

That’s not the case today. Try this test question when an employee asks for a flexible arrangement: Would you have permitted the arrangement pre-pandemic if it was for a transitional period while they were dealing with a personal health or family crisis?

If you would have accommodated whatever they needed for six weeks or more, then test the way they want to work for those same six weeks. Make clear that if problems occur during the test period, some adjustment will be necessary, and also invite the employee to inform you promptly — and without repercussions — if the experiment isn’t working out the way they expected.

  1. Don’t mistake physical presence for loyalty

“Whether they work on-premises or remotely, employees who feel supported in doing what’s right for their own lives are likely to feel even more strongly about their commitment to their organization, rather than suffering from ongoing ambivalence, fear, or resentment — all of which are likely to have a negative impact on their work relationships and output.”

This tailored approach will be challenging and time-consuming in the beginning, but it’s significantly less costly than watching your investment in critical staff walk out the door, or not being able to attract the specific talent you need, noted Kislik.

“In the long-term, most employees will observe how well the organization adapts to theirs and their colleagues’ needs and will end up gravitating to the most popular and effective programs and solutions. Eventually, true exceptions will come up only rarely.”


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