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Manager Conversation Guide: Practices for Designing Flexible Work Solutions

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Updated Dec. 1, 2023

In the best of times, employees report experiencing competing demands among work, family and life in general.  The pandemic exacerbated these issues and flexibility and workforce agility became necessary survival tools. The crisis highlighted the importance of culture, and as we move forward, we have the opportunity to consider and create our workplace culture for the future.

The key to our transition is manager conversations with employees. This guide helps you prepare for conversations in support of your employee's individual needs and preferences, team operational needs, and for yourself in contributing to a successful flexible, collaborative and inclusive workplace.

What to do

Engage with employees to create a space for open dialogue, particularly about the type of support and flexibility employees seek during this time of continued recovery and re-imagining how we work. Focus on active listening and establishing a connection, and state that your goals include providing the right tools and empowering your team to have greater autonomy over where, when and how their work is done.  

Why do it

The world has fundamentally changed. How work is done has fundamentally shifted. Now is the time to lead with compassion while keeping in mind university and school/unit operational needs and the unique work, needs and preferences of your team. Through open communication and partnership in creatively solving problems, you and your teams can build understanding and strengthen your relationships.

Research shows that employees perform better and maintain higher levels of well-being when work-family-life concerns are factored into policies and practices and that manager support for these concerns is essential in contributing to positive employee and organizational outcomes.

As people managers, you play a key role in contributing to Stanford's vision of flexible work, where all members of the campus community:

  • Have access to building their careers while maintaining their well-being and fulfilling their life responsibilities.
  • Bring their "whole authentic selves" not just "work selves" to the workplace.
  • Create and benefit from work-life integration.
  • Have the flexibility to meet the demands of their families and work responsibilities with success.

How to do it

Focus on the human experience while being open to and engaged in exploring new work arrangement opportunities for your employees, your team and yourself. Give yourself the time to understand your employees' perspectives, circumstances and concerns while thoroughly considering overall operational and job requirements

Step 1: Check in with yourself

Before entering a conversation, check in with yourself. Slow down and connect with the present moment. Starting conversations from a centered place fosters authenticity and focus.

Step 2: Commit to curiosity and compassion

Curiosity maintains a judgment-free space and allows your dialog to be fluid and not rigidly bound to an agenda. During the conversation, be compassionate with your words and show empathy for life changes. Avoid going into solution mode or needing to share your own similar story. Don't assume you need to "fix" everything expressed.

Step 3: Acknowledge and advocate

Acknowledgement means showing that you have heard and understand what has been shared. Explain back to the employee what you think their concerns are to ensure that you have not misunderstood or misrepresented what has been shared. Affirm the employee's feelings by using phrases like:

  • "This sounds really important to you."
  • "What I hear you saying is..."
  • "I sense that you feel..."

Ask open-ended questions to help you gain a better understanding of the employee's perspective.

  • "What do you need right now?"
  • "What are your ideal work hours, desired flexibility, or schedule changes?"
  • "What is working well for you?" and “What is not working well for you?"

Once you have acknowledged and affirmed what the employee shared, you can impart your perspective on what may have been left out of the conversation.

Step 4: Partner to problem solve

This is an opportunity to explore solutions that result in a successful work agreement that aligns with the university's mission, flexible work guiding principles and employee well-being. Flexibility exists on a spectrum, but essentially it is about acknowledging that employees have lives outside of work and providing options that can lead to greater equitability, productivity and well-being. Potential adjustments may include:

  • Provide flexibility for which days are on-site hybrid work, or poll your team to determine which days are best for everyone to be on-site if that is important for your operations and team collaboration.  
  • Suggest team core hours of availability (example: 10:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.).
  • Adjust deadlines from "end of day" to "beginning of next day" and proactively discuss what happens if a deadline needs to be renegotiated due to shifting plans or priorities.

Step 5: Establish ongoing communication

Once an agreement has been reached, offer to check back with the employee in 2-3 weeks to ensure the agreement is continuing to work for both of you. Adjust as needed.

Key Considerations

1. Create team norms together. 

Members create clear agreements with one another on how to best work together. Team agreements create a foundation for building trusting relationships, accountability and strengthened team cohesion. Whether these agreements involve how your team will leverage technology to communicate with each other on work deliverables or agreeing to make calendars visible to one another with clearly labeled availability and unavailability based on individual work-life circumstances, it's okay if they evolve to address challenges and aspirations as they arise. 

View Defining Team Norms Guide (pdf)

2. Clarify expectations

Especially during times of change and uncertainty, take the time to set clear goals and verbalize expectations for employees to help them feel confident in their roles, and reiterate or clarify organizational priorities and goals to ensure alignment.

3. One-size does not fit all

Every employee's situation and circumstances are different, and accounting for these differences is important. When it comes to flexible work schedules, different arrangements that fit the unique needs of each employee on your team are okay as long as the operational needs of the group are met, the process by which the arrangement was made is fair and consistent across your entire team, and organizational culture supports the arrangement. Ask yourself, does the process optimize the way work is done based on the employee's unique realities?

4. Establish clear priorities

Help your team identify and reduce low value work. Get detailed about individual and team goals, priorities and deliverables. Be open and clear about these, then measure productivity based on deliverables.

5. Consider work-life integration in the context of a week, rather than a day 

Work-life integration is a mindset that sees every activity in a day as part of a whole. Work and life are no longer compartmentalized, the focus is on "what is the best time to complete a task?" Some days employees may need more time to focus on themselves, or their families, other days they will be more focused on work demands. Focus on how this balances out over the course of a week in alignment with identified deliverables.

Prepare for the conversation

As you prepare to converse with your teams, give some thought to the following questions.

  • Have I deeply considered my "measures of success" for my team and for myself? How am I sharing these measures with my team? Can my team articulate how their flexible plans enable them and our team to reach the success criteria?
  • How will employees structure their day? Are there regular times that each of us are available or unavailable? How will I model and empower employees to “own” their schedules?
  • How do I know, outside of hours worked, when someone is productive on my team? What does “output” mean to me? How do I value “contribution”?
  • How am I taking care of myself right now? How am I encouraging my team to take care of themselves?
  • What boundaries do I want to maintain and model for others who may also want to set boundaries from work, but are not sure how to do that?
  • How am I showing cultural humility? Cultural humility can increase our ability to see from another’s viewpoints and lived work-life experience. It can help us understand each other’s backgrounds and behavior and ultimately increase our ability to work together.
  • How am I demonstrating empathy for my employees and their unique situations? Have I been a committed partner in helping my team members solve their work-life conflicts?
  • How am I encouraging my team and showing my gratitude for their commitment during this time of transition and uncertainty?