360° Answers: How to Convince a Manager to Allow Flexible Schedules

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view.  For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

I’m a manager in a small department and have to get approval of flexible schedules for staff from my Boss.  Boss wants everyone to be at work during normal business hours, doesn’t like flexible schedules, and sees all requests as the same (trying to get out of work).  Yes, I’m confused about this thinking and believe Boss doesn’t really understand flextime and its advantages, but I’m wondering how to best discuss this.

Boss tends to overreact whenever I bring up the topic and gets into the issue of “not trusting the employee to really work and not goof off.”  I see a request to temporarily change a schedule by arriving earlier and staying later on some days and leaving early on other days because of family schedules/child care issues to be different from a request to work at home on certain days on an ongoing basis.  The first example involves working all hours at the office for a limited amount of time and the second example involves working some days at home with no finite term, but Boss lumps all these requests together and denies all of them.  Any suggestions or advice on how I can approach the subject and try to get Boss to logically consider these requests?

Answer from Eva Rykrsmith:

The topic of flexible schedules seems to be a hot button issue for your boss, so I am not convinced logical persuasion would work in this case. Your boss will have an emotional reaction during the conversation and the best logical argument simply cannot work when he is in that state.

Your boss considers flextime as trying to get out of work because his definition of work is face time. As long as that remains the case you are fighting a losing battle. Instead of trying to change his mind about flextime, it would be more productive to change his attitude about work.

In a recent article about unlimited PTO, Carol Harnett writes that having the right cultural attitude about work is the key; “the culture litmus test is whether a company possesses an established track record of managing by objectives and/or functions as a results-only-workplace-environment. If not, moving toward these operating principles is key before taking on any flex-time policy, including unlimited PTO.”

If your boss is unaware of what your staff is actually working on and which of those actions are the most productive or profitable for your business unit, it is understandable that an absence during so-called “working hours” would cause anxiety. With your boss, focus your efforts toward creating a more accurate definition of work for your staff. From there, you will be in a better position to have a conversation about work in terms of impact rather than in terms of specific hours.

Answer from Anita Bruzzese:

I think the boss needs to get a clue.

There’s ample evidence that flextime not only improves worker productivity, but boosts morale and retention. Sounds to me like the boss has been living under a rock and needs to be given the information to make a more well-informed decision.

I’d suggest, for example, sending the boss research from the Families and Work Institute that shares stories not only from employers who have benefited from flextime, but also offers some hard numbers on how it can pay off. You can find several beneficial reports here: http://www.familiesandwork.org/. They also have a new toolkit here: http://whenworkworks.org/research/workflexemployeetoolkit.html

Next, I’d suggest employees also get a clue. They’re not going to talk the boss into giving them flextime until they can prove all the bases will be covered. That means they need to get together, think of all the scenarios that might cause the boss to balk, and figure out a way to solve any problems.

For example, is someone always going to be in the office to deal with emergencies? If you’re going to be out of touch for several hours, is there someone to cover for you? Do you have set office hours when anyone can reach you, even when working from home?

The best way to get the boss to accept the idea that flextime can work is to do it on a trial basis. Be realistic about jobs that may not be able use flex options. Have employees keep track of their hours, productivity, etc. This will help reassure the boss that just because an employee isn’t warming a chair in the office doesn’t mean he or she isn’t working.

Answer from Alexandra Levit:

It does indeed sound like your boss has an old-fashioned opinion of telework, and if you want him to change it, you’ll have to better educate him.  I would start with a written proposal that puts the organization first and addresses, upfront, the issues you know your boss is concerned about.  They key here is to present teleworking as a benefit to your company, and by extension, to him.

Your proposal should include the specifics of your home office set-up, incorporating the fact that it will be quiet, fully-equipped, and child-free.  Recommend that you engage in a month-long trial so that your boss has the opportunity to assess how it’s working for everyone.

During that trial month, prove the cost savings to your boss by being much more productive than you were before and cutting down on your expenses.  Send more frequent e-communications during the business day so that your boss can see that you’re online and working when you’re supposed to be.  Make sure your smartphone is always on, even if you head out for a brief lunch or errand.

I also suggest amping up your relationships with your colleagues.  When you telecommute even a few days a week, it’s easy to let those lapse.  Appear in person and speak up in team meetings to let your boss know that you are still deeply involved in everything that’s going on.  By the conclusion of the trial, your boss hopefully sees that he’s gotten the better end of the bargain by allowing you a more flexible schedule.

Answer from Alison Green:

In addition to the tactics others suggested, I’d also point out to your boss that flextime and telecommuting are proven benefits for attracting and retaining the best employees, something that matters even in an employer’s market. And he might not be aware of how widespread both practices have become, so you should educate him about that too.

However, it might not be as simple as just laying out the logical case for him, even though that case is strong. The reality is that some managers just aren’t open to flextime. That’s especially true of poor managers who don’t know how to ensure employees are working other than to require cookie-cutter hours. After all, think about what your boss is saying when he says he doesn’t think he can be sure someone is working if she works 7-4 rather than 9-6. Assuming the person asking for the schedule change isn’t in a role where hours of coverage matter (like a receptionist), this isn’t even an issue of wanting face time; it’s just a rigid adherence to rules … which is often the stance of people who don’t have a real understanding of how to get things done.

And saying that he won’t know if work is getting done if someone is telecommuting is like saying, “I don’t have effective ways to assess my employees’ work, but I at least rely on them to be on the premises.”

That said, you should certainly try all the suggestions above. If your boss is just a bit old-school but willing to be open-minded, they might work. But you should also be prepared for the prospect that you’re working for someone set in his ways on these issues, and that might just be part of the package of working for him.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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