Flexibility is the greatest perk

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Growth
Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash.

Where we are

Given that technology talent is in significant demand, and given that salaries can only go so high before they fail to become a meaningful differentiator, companies need to find new ways to attract and retain staff.

As a manager of engineers, aside from making sure that I am paying market rate, I’ve found that the most impactful workplace perk that I can give staff is flexibility over the time and location of their work.

Typically this means:

  • The ability for my staff to work from home (or elsewhere) when they need, either for productivity reasons or for any other life reason.
  • No strict start and end of the day, since we’re not a factory.

This perk costs you pretty much nothing, but the effect on employee happiness can be something quite special.

It can give someone the ability to do all of their children’s school runs. It can save thousands on peak time public transport costs. It can allow someone to care better for a dependent in need. It can take the pressure off of a partner working full-time with no flexibility of their own. It can allow someone to visit their family for two weeks whilst also getting their work done remotely and not using any vacation time.

Doubling your salary will not allow you to buy these freedoms.

We’ve come a long way from free Coke

Ten years ago, a Google-esque perks list that included foosball, free snacks and drinks and a quirky office on top of interesting work will have been unique enough to attract staff away from duller corporate environments.

However, I would argue that these benefits have become a hygiene factor for most technology companies. My cynical side could point out that companies that try to make their office “cool”, whilst still being in the cultural and technological dark ages, have a lot to fix before worrying about where to optimally place their Kegerator.

A positive shift happening in our industry is a move towards increased trust and flexibility in the full-time contract between the employer and the employee.

In my experience, senior staff couldn’t give a damn about how good your table tennis table is. They want to do meaningful work, for a decent wage, but most importantly, they want to be trusted, autonomous, and be able to manage their time like an adult.

This means working from home when they feel that it makes them more productive, leaving early each day so that they can do the school run, and having a flexible vacation policy so that they don’t have to sacrifice time off this year so they can carry over enough days into the following year to go and see their family for a meaningful amount of time in another continent.

I am a fervent supporter of this flexibility for all of my employees. It makes a vast difference, especially with the cost and unreliability of transport.

Age as a catalyst of change

In the early stages of my career, most of my time and energy was channeled into my work and self-development. I worked obsessively hard on my Ph.D. and in my first few years of work. I certainly do not regret this. There is a time and a place for blinkered laser-focus, but it is certainly not all of the time.

The most important thing in life to my current self isn’t my job. (Sorry folks.) It’s everything else as well. It’s my family, dog, friends, mental and physical health, my hobbies, and also my job. I want to bring my best state of mind to all of those aspects of my brief existence without one being detrimental to the other.

If my job is leaving me so tired and time poor that I don’t want to cook and enjoy a nice meal as a family, or it makes me unable to read or watch a movie without falling asleep, nor leaves me with the creative energy to engage in my hobbies, then what’s the point of doing it in the first place? I could easily get a different job. Work should support and enable lives, rather than claim them.

Given that we don’t need to clock in and clock out of a building to operate machinery to build software, I want the flexibility to be able to manage my time as appropriate, work from my nice desk at home to birdsong when it is most beneficial for my productivity and my home life, and generally feel like an autonomous, trusted adult. If you give me that, interesting work and a decent salary, I’ll give you my best.

I’ve managed to arrive at this position over the years, but I appreciate that not everybody else in the technology world has, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes workplaces simply do not allow it and require bums to be on seats between 8:30 AM and 5:30 PM regardless of the tendency of employees to converge towards sinecure to pad the time, or sometimes there are hurdles of internal, anxious social workplace pressure to conform.

“I must be in the office early! What will they think of me if I am not?”

But why not?

If you are a manager and your workplace does not offer this kind of flexibility, then do not immediately lose hope. You could make it happen. You can look to pitch it to your own manager as an experiment. You could light the fire that begins to spread.

It obviously helps if you and your team are already performing well in the first place, but I have the feeling that if you’re actively researching how to introduce more flexibility, then you’re a few steps ahead of most managers out there.

So, assuming that your team performs well, and assuming that offering more flexibility is something that both you and your staff will benefit from, pitch the following to your own manager:

  • That you are going to allow more flexibility in working hours and office presence from this point onwards. You may want to define this more formally, or just let it unfold naturally. If your team isn’t used to this, then I’d recommend starting with perhaps 1 or 2 days maximum working from home a week, and defining some core office hours, such as 10 AM to 3 PM for those physically present in the office.
  • That you will run flexible working as a trial for a fixed period of time. 90 days is a good timeframe to start with, as that can coincide with a decent amount of work being done that you can collectively measure.
  • That, as a reminder, you are ultimately responsible for your team’s performance. You will grant and revoke more or less flexibility if it is or isn’t working out for individuals on your terms, based on the productivity and team harmony that you see, rather than what outside observers may think.
  • That it will be done privately and without wider announcement. In order to cause as little disruption – and potentially jealousy – in other areas of the company, the trial will be done in stealth and not publicized. After all, if increased flexibility is beneficial to employee happiness and productivity, then the quality of work and interactions with the team should remain at least as good as it was before.
  • That you’ll all report back after the trial. Collect the opinions of the team and of those that regularly work with them. Did any aspect of the team’s work suffer as a result of this increased flexibility, or did morale and productivity improve? Did those that interact frequently with the team find them harder to get hold of, or did it not matter?

If the trial goes well, you can probably extend it indefinitely. If your manager is supportive, you could use it as a vehicle to start the conversation with the wider company about flexible working, which could bring meaningful change for everybody.

Flexible working will prevent your staff from leaving. Get them off of the rails. You won’t regret it.

2 Comments

  1. Al Chou says

    While a trial/experiment is certainly an obvious approach to take, I don’t see how the stealth approach really works. People talk. So those outside the team that’s doing the trial will find out — if only when they find the flexible team harder to get hold of, which they definitely will, at least some of the time (there’s always variability in this and everything else, but if it’s not acknowledged ahead of time that there may be undesirable effects, the perception of such effects will be much harsher than if everyone who could be affected was apprised of that up front). Otherwise, I like the proposal.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I take your point – it’s true that people talk. In reality, I think it completely depends on your department and company. Maybe the culture is very accepting and open and introducing flexible work will be encouraged by all. On the other hand, maybe it could cause tension within or outside the department. “Why them and not us?”

      As long as the trial is done with the right level of transparency and subtlety, respecting how others may feel as a result, then it’s all good.

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