Weekly Wrap: Why Do Middle Managers Resist Flex-Work for Employees?

Work flexibility can be a never-ending task - for both workers and their supervisors. (Photo illustration by istockphoto.com)

If you’re one of those people who keep close watch on the changing trends in the workforce, you might think that flexible schedules and working arrangements are pretty much standard practice these days most everywhere.

Yes, you might think that, but you would be wrong.

Believe it or not, there is actually a fair amount of resistance to flexible work arrangements, and not surprisingly, it’s coming from middle managers.

Resistance from middle managers

Workplace columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman — and she ALWAYS seems to be on top of these trends — got into it this week in The Miami Herald, and it’s an interesting issue because we keep hearing how important job flexibility has become as a workplace issue.

Here’s the gist of her story:

One of the questions I most often hear from readers seeking work/life balance is “How do I get my manager to give me flexibility?”

Sometimes it comes from a mother who is struggling to take care of an infant and keep her job. Other times, the question comes from a male boomer who can’t stand the commute and wants to work from home a few mornings. Surprisingly, it even may come from someone whose company has a policy that embraces flexible work arrangements.

Typically, it’s a middle manager who stands in the way.

“Manager resistance can be one of the biggest barriers to workplace flexibility,” said Kyra Cavanaugh, president of Lifemeetswork, a flexible workplace consultancy firm.”

Trust and control issues

As a longtime manager, I understand the resistance part because although there are many great workers who will utilize flexible work options in a way that is a win-win for both them and the company, there are others workers — and you probably have dealt with them too — who will take advantage of a flex work situation. They’re the ones who can fuel much of the manager resistance, and their behavior runs the risk of ruining it for everyone.

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But that’s not an issue that Goodman gets into in her Miami Herald story. She doesn’t focus quite so much on “why” some middle managers are reluctant to embrace flex work, but more on that it is (surprisingly) going on, as well as some answers for those on both sides who are debating it.

The definition of working flexibly has expanded in recent years, encompassing everything from shifting start and finish times to working four-day work weeks to working some or all of the time from home, or a variety of other arrangements

The most common manager objections to flexible working revolves around trust and control: How do I know you’re working if I can’t see you? What if I need you and you aren’t available? …

In most workplaces, flexibility exists as an informal accommodation. Managers will give it to top performers. But some bosses object to all requests by saying, “If I do it for you, I will have to do it for others.”

Wellstar, an Atlanta health provider with 12,000 employees, has a flexibility policy recognized as one of the best by Working Mother magazine. But even the best workplaces have pockets of resistance. Wellstar urges managers to evaluate each request fairly, based on the business rather than the individual reason.

“We tell the managers that if their staff is able to maintain its level of productivity and there would be no negative impact on results, it’s at least worth considering different ways to work,” said Karen Mathews, director of work/life services at Wellstar. Some managers still say no, she concedes, but others are starting to feel peer pressure.”

Call centers moving to the Philippines

Yes, there is a lot of peer pressure to utilize flexible working arrangements, and it is both because the nature of work had changed, and, one small thing that organizations can do to help make their workers lives easier and more productive. Given all the bad stuff that happened to so many workers during (and continues to linger after) the recession, it seems to me to be something more managers should be willing to embrace than looking to shut down.

Of course, there’s more than the debate over flexible work arrangements in the news this week. Here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Call centers are moving – from India to the Philippines. It’s good to see that the outsourcing of call centers to distant places is undergoing a transformation as companies figure out that sometimes, it’s not all about the lowest cost. According to The New York Times, this is why many call centers are moving from places like India to the Philippines — because people there provide better service to American customers. “Over the last several years, a quiet revolution has been reshaping the call center business: the rise of the Philippines, a former United States colony that has a large population of young people who speak lightly accented English and, unlike many Indians, are steeped in American culture. … Analysts said call centers in the Philippines appeared to have helped American businesses respond to complaints from consumers who said they could not understand Indian agents. But it is unlikely to satisfy critics who say outsourcing is sending too many jobs abroad as millions of Americans struggle to find work.”
  • Why we should express more gratitude at work. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on the negative than the positive, but as this article in The Miami Herald points out, we ALL should be more grateful for what we have at work. “This holiday season, let’s move beyond simply feeling a sense of gratitude to actually expressing it. Especially in these challenging economic times, showing a little gratitude can go a long way. It may even have a direct effect on your bottom line. According to a recent Gallup poll, 65 percent of people say they don’t feel appreciated at work. As a result, a sense of negativity in the workplace tends to increase while morale and productivity invariably decrease. The problem is that most employers don’t know how to express appreciation beyond financial means and the current economic crisis places serious limitations on their ability to reward workers with raises and bonuses —assuming, first and foremost, that the salaries they pay are satisfactory.”
  • Rewarding bad workplace behavior. What can you say when boorish workplace behavior gets rewarded? As LAObserved.com reports, former Tribune Company CEO Randy Michaels got more than a $700,000 payout despite getting pushed out the door for what can only be described charitably as frat boy behavior. “Michaels, who resigned under pressure after reports of his Animal House behavior at the Chicago-based media giant (and parent of the LAT), had demanded that he receive a $900,000 termination fee under terms of his contract (actually his management incentive bonus). His lawyers and Tribune’s lawyers settled on $675,000, plus $50,000 to cover legal fees.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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1 Comment on “Weekly Wrap: Why Do Middle Managers Resist Flex-Work for Employees?

  1. John – interesting to read.  After having managed virtual teams for a long time, trust and control are certainly up there as some of the reasons mid-management resists telework.  The decision to create a flexible workplace should be a strategic business priority that is championed from the top, embedded in an overall corporate strategy, cascaded down into organization divisions, and mechanisms for accountability need to be built into performance management systems to start changing behaviors among those most resistant.  The issues of mid-management resistance are multilayered.  What you wrote about, and the need for an effective strategy are just some of the many issues to address in creating successful flexible workplaces.
    -Emily
    Flextime Global

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