Ask Wendy

When are rules flexible?

Q: How do you balance being the kind of manager you “want” to be (trusting, hands-off, same rules apply to all) when one team member clearly needs more boundaries?
A specific example: I truly think working from home is a positive benefit offered by my company. I personally like it, and I like to give my team flexibility to “show up” when, where and how they are needed. What do you do when one team member takes advantage of that — when you don’t trust they are actually working when they are “working” from home and aren’t making good decisions when deciding where to work? 
A: Let’s start with your specific example, because teleworking is the most common situation I see a manger suddenly bringing down the policy hammer when things aren’t going to plan. If we reframe working from home not as a benefit but a privilege, then not coming into the office becomes something an employee needs to earn.
Next, you have to ask if you’ve clearly told your team how to earn the ability to work remotely? It’s likely you need to feel confident in their work and responsiveness before any scheduling flexibility is considered – a reasonable expectation.  If someone already has a performance issue, resolve it before before considering a flexible work arrangement.
Once job performance isn’t the issue, make sure you’ve shared your expectations for when your team isn’t in the office. Do you expect your team to reply to your emails within minutes? Have a set up for video conferences where you can’t see their kitchen sink? Forward their office number to a landline? Whatever it may be, these are the rules to share with the entire team – they are the same for everyone. A refresher at a team meeting is good practice overall – a reminder even to those without a problem currently that privileges have to be earned.
Next, I recommend a bit of reflection to check yourself: are your standards higher when someone is home rather at the office? Part of the reason I like to work from home is no one can stop by desk, so I get long uninterrupted stretches of work. Expecting immediate responses just because you can’t see someone can make the productivity benefits of being home evaporate.
Whew. All that said, then ask why you don’t trust the employee in your current scenario? Is work product overall an issue? Taking calls from pool-side? Now you can address specific behaviors that don’t match your expectations. This is the actual act of managing – taking a vague workplace policy, usually designed to allow for ‘manager discretion’, and being explicit on how you expect things to work for your team. Establishing a solid foundation of expectations makes addressing individual issues much easier.

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