Lack of Trust and Leadership – the Biggest Barrier to Flexible Working

Lack of Trust and Leadership – the Biggest Barrier to Flexible Working

By Liz Lawson

Flexible working is becoming the norm, with the rise of globalisation, enabled by advances in technology, it now means that people can work pretty much anywhere. This has a big appeal for employees wanting the flexibility and freedom to work when and where they choose so that they can more easily juggle work and personal commitments. It also offers benefits to employers which include greater talent attraction and retention, access to expanded talent pools, increased productivity and performance, and reduced estate costs. In addition to the well documented benefits of flexible working the competition for talent means it is evidently a growing trend that more and more organisations are feeling pressure to adopt. Yet according to research by the CIPD in January 2019, a significant proportion of the workforce are not being given the option to work flexibly.

Therefore, do all employers really believe the reported benefits? The truth is that many don’t. Many organisations report operational pressures, industry sector and the nature of their work as barriers to adopting flexible working. Add to this that many managers simply want their workforce where they can see them and able to get hold of them when they want. However, the trend towards virtual teams and remote working presents ever increasing challenges to such managers, especially when under pressure themselves to deliver against stretching targets. Given the competitive imperative, organisations should challenge such paradigms and seek to evolve rather than risk becoming obsolete. Whilst we acknowledge that there are some sectors and job roles that are less suited to flexible working e.g. manufacturing or health service workers, there are a growing number of sectors where more flexible approaches are working effectively. Indeed, our experience tells us it is not sector being the largest blocker it is often more about a lack of trust and the need to equip leaders with the appropriate skills to manage such teams.

To remain competitive, there may be no choice but to embrace flexible working. Therefore, for businesses and employees to truly realise the benefits that it can bring, and be leaders in their field, it requires fundamental culture change, starting at the top. In our experience the following components are key to successfully building a flexible and remote working culture:

  1. Root it in the strategy: Identify and communicate the ‘why’ i.e. the business drivers for adopting a flexible way of working. This could be to support growth without increased establishment costs, to better meet the changing needs of customers and employees or to expand the talent pool outside of office locations, for instance.
  2. Senior leadership sponsorship: Like with any culture change, proactive support for remote/flexible working and role modelling of the right behaviours from the most senior people within the organisation is vital to engaging the wider organisation. There is no point in senior leaders saying that they are onboard and then placing demands on employees which make it impossible for them to work flexibly.
  3. Leadership training: Managing virtual and flexible working teams will require a bigger shift in attitude, skills and behaviours for some leaders more than others. Fundamentally a trust-based leadership approach needs to be adopted with clarity on objectives and deliverables yet greater emphasis on outcomes rather than when and where work is completed. Providing greater autonomy to teams and enabling them to self-manage, engage and stay connected is another important shift. This includes being sensitive to cultural differences within a team and being the mediator in balancing corporate and local needs.
  4. Self-managed teams: Empowering teams to take greater ownership for their collective learning and delivery of outcomes is essential when working remotely. Encouraging collective rather than single responsibility combats issues with supervising trainees when work patterns don’t match. It also enables leaders themselves to work the hours they want to work, helping organisations to retain and access all good leaders rather than just those willing to work 24/7.
  5. Embrace technology: Choosing the right technology and training on how to use this is critical to enable virtual teams to interact in a different way, without people feeling isolated or disconnected to their colleagues. Instant messaging and video conferencing platforms, such as WhatsApp and Skype, are growing rapidly in popularity due to this new way of working.

Like many aspects of business change there is no silver bullet and each business should start with what they are trying to achieve and why. There is no point treating this as a “tick box” exercise, to appease one or two key individuals or to try and give the impression of a business which is forward thinking, when the underlying culture does not support it. In the world of social media and connected networks the illusion will be short lived. That said, with a clear purpose and rationale, it is possible to make small changes to start along the path towards a longer term goal – since demonstrating an aspiration to become more flexible and to embrace the benefits associated with flexible working will send positive signals across your organisation and into the market place.

Wickland Westcott provides support to organisations grappling with the challenges of leading virtual and flexible teams. Whether it is simply advice you are looking for or leadership training and development, please contact Liz Lawson for more information on 07970 377481 or email

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