Mitigating Proximity Bias for Flexible Working

Supporting workplace flexibility is a table stake in the modern workplace. If we in the agency world want to attract and retain the best talent, we have to create an environment where employees can navigate the many demands – both personal and professional – that come along with being connected 24/7.

Flexibility is not just for millennials, or for people in creative roles. Our workforce is made up of four generations of people at different points in their career and personal trajectories, in varying roles that all link up so we can deliver the best solutions to our clients. Research shows that employees who have the ability to choose certain aspects of when, how, and where they work tend to be more committed to their organizations, and are more likely to produce higher quality work.

Flexibility seems like an easy thing to offer, and yet, at a recent roundtable meeting of HR professionals working in agencies, we had a robust discussion around the challenges of making it a reality, and agreed that it was inconsistently supported. Two key themes emerged for me in these discussions: first, managers can get caught up in “proximity bias” – meaning if they can’t physically see this person working in the office, the person must not be working. One way managers can seek to mitigate this tendency is by setting clear and objective expectations around performance. Second, for employees, they can plan and manage up in a more proactive way to help navigate potential manager concerns about flexible working situations.

Whether your company’s approach to flexibility is structured (consistent remote working options), a more “as-needed” flexibility approach, or a combination of both, we need to get better at being able to clearly articulate what success looks like for our people, and be better at providing the framework for deliverables and expectations without micro-managing and over-glorifying the need for “face time.”

Here are three suggestions for managers to help set parameters for a flexible work arrangement:

1. Take a look at the job description: Start at the beginning. Does it accurately reflect the responsibilities for the role? If not, work with your HR partner to gain alignment. Going through this process will help you get your thoughts in order, and lead to a more productive and clear dialogue when you discuss it with the individual. Which leads to…

2. Have a conversation: We often expect people “to know what is expected of them.” I know that when I’ve taken the time to have the conversation and be clear about expectations and deliverables, it’s a difference maker. What does success look like and how is it measured? What outcomes are required? Is there anything different that needs to happen (more communication, flexing around certain meetings, etc.) when a person works remotely? What does it look like to “meet goals” vs. “hitting it out of the park?” Being able to clearly describe this state will help the individual better deliver against that.

3. Ongoing feedback: What’s working? What isn’t? Make sure to devise and align on the solutions for what isn’t working and agree on the behavior changes to get it back on track. Questions like: “What is getting in the way of success or meeting your goals?” followed by “How can we push past/remove those obstacles?” will open up a productive discussion and get to resolution. And don’t forget to recognize and reinforce the positive outcome, both to the individual as well as your broader team. That will help encourage the right behaviors in others as well.

As employees, we too have a role in making flexible working successful:

1. Have a conversation: Speak actively and productively with your manager to understand what they need from you to make a flexible work arrangement successful. Don’t assume you understand expectations nor that people will know you are working. Communicate a bit more while you are working flexibly, particularly when it is new so that trust builds, and make sure you are delivering great work.

2. Plan in advance and be transparent: Ensure your manager and team members know where you will be working and how to reach you – forward your office phone, be available on chat or instant messenger. Consider using video conference or webcam capabilities for meetings. Alert your manager and team if there is a period of time you won’t be reachable, and plan for coverage. Don’t use a flexible work arrangement as a secret day off: if you need the time off, plan accordingly to take the day.

3. Ask for feedback: Check in with your team and manager to agree on what works, and whether there are any changes that need to be considered. Don’t assume that everything is going smoothly – be open to making changes.

Flexible work arrangements require partnership and open dialogue between managers and employees. Taking the time to set expectations, manage performance and not face time, be transparent about schedules and availability, and utilize the technology available to us, will ensure we deliver on both our business as well as our talent goals.

A version of this article can be found on the PR Council website.