How often do you bend the rules?
How do you know when someone deserves the benefit of the doubt?
At work, there are rules for a reason. You’re expected to put in your 8 hours, to get things done on time, and not to just disappear from the office for hours without warning. The rules exist to keep things moving and to make sure everyone else can do their jobs too.
But everyone knows that rules need to be broken sometimes. Not everyone works the same way or thrives on the same schedule. And flexibility allows for you to actually be a better manager.
So while it is your job to enforce the rules, it is also your job to know when to bend or break the rules if necessary.
People whose individual needs are met are happier, more engaged, and more productive.
So how can you lead in a way that allows for flexibility and acknowledging people’s needs, without being taken advantage of or losing productivity?
Flexibility is possible when you have two things:
- a system of checks and balances that ensure high quality work
Here’s how to get them both, and why you should.
Creating a system of checks and balances
This starts before you even hire someone. KateM said to me, when we were brainstorming this post, “I try to hire adults.” By this she means, when she is talking to a candidate, she tries to get a sense of whether this person will need a lot of babysitting or not. “It’s not your job to be someone’s babysitter,” she said.
Your goal when hiring should be to get people who are going to do a good job, no matter what, whether you’re watching them or not.
Once a new person is hired, it’s not realistic to expect to trust them 100% right away. You don’t know them well and so why would you get them carte blanche to do whatever they want? You need some systems in place that can help you establish that trust.
If this person is blogging for you, you should expect to read every single post they write and give feedback. If they are doing a client meeting, you should attend the meeting and give feedback afterwards. If they are coding, you (or a senior member of your team) should review every single line of code and give feedback before it is implemented.
This is where you’ll establish what you expect, and your ongoing feedback will show this person you are serious about achieving your desired level of quality.
Over time, great employees will need your feedback less and less. Instead of so many reviews, just do regular 1:1s (which you should be doing from the beginning, too) to keep track of how people are feeling about their work.
Once you see that they can write a blog post, pitch a client, or write code up to the level that you expect, you can start to phase out of their process more and more.
And by the way, you definitely *should* phase out of the review process: that should be the goal. No more babysitting. The time you spend monitoring someone who no longer needs monitoring is a waste of your time, and keeps you from the key priorities of your role.
How to build and implement trust
One of my friends just started working in a new role, and she leaves the office at 3pm every day to feed her baby and get a workout in, with no problem from her new boss.
How did she do this? Trust.
Flexibility is something that came when, early on in her new role, she went over and above the checks and balances that her boss put in place. She set expectations by delivering high quality work and being proactive with status and communication.
She made it clear that, even though she was leaving at 3pm, she was getting all of her projects done and even logging on every night at 8pm to do a few more hours of work (which means she’s actually putting in more than the usual 8 hours a day).
Great employees deserve your trust.
If a great employee gets freedom and flexibility at work, nothing will change. If anything, their work might even improve since they are being allowed to create a schedule or work environment that really works for them.
A not-so-great employee won’t. And at that point, as the boss, you can talk to them about that and, if necessary, make them start playing by the regular rules again. If they don’t understand why, then you need to do a better job of setting expectations for their role.
How will you know the difference between the people who will thrive with freedom and those who won’t? You can’t know for sure in advance. Results can be hard to measure (just because something was done quickly doesn’t mean it was done well, for example). But over time, the metrics will show.
Great work lasts. Bad work falls apart. Make sure to notice who is doing which kind of work, and be flexible accordingly.
Your job is to enforce the rules, and to know when to bend the rules
Imagine that someone on your team just had a baby, has taken their allowed parental leave, and tells you they want to come back but only part time for the next couple of months so they can stay home with their new child more.
Or imagine an employee with a family emergency. They need 3 weeks off to take care of a situation, and might need even more time off over the following weeks too.
What do you do?
As frustrating as it might be to you to lose a productive worker, if you’ve established trust over a long work relationship with this person, the choice should be obvious.
It is so preferable to accommodate and keep a great employee than to insist they follow the official company vacation or leave policies.
Think about it: you’ll either end up with someone who is completely unhappy and distracted coming into the office full time, or they’ll quit and you’ll lose a valuable team member.
Better to have someone who has already been awesome take some time away, and then have them come back when they are ready. Odds are, they’ll return to their high level of performance — and they’ll appreciate you for giving them the flexibility their life required.
Plus, it will truly mean something if you do this. People aren’t often given the benefit of the doubt, and you can bet it was hard for them to ask for you to be flexible in the first place.
Not only will your choice strengthen that individual relationship, but the rest of your team and company will see that too, and know that you are a leader who truly cares about the people they work with.
In addition, it makes good business sense too. It usually takes a new hire up to a year to start paying back the cost to hire them and the lost productivity of their first few months on a job; if you can let a great team member be gone, even for a couple of months, it will still cost your business less than if you had forced them to quit (or work unhappily) and had to hire someone new to pick up the slack.
How to increase your flexibility as an employee
Let’s say you’re on a new team and your boss isn’t doing the steps above to build trust or create a system of checks and balances for you to succeed within. Is there anything you can do to start building the trust that will allow you more flexibility in the future?
When you’re the new employee, you should be pushing key information (like wins, questions, and any problems/situations that you think they should know about) at your new boss all the time.
Make it so they never need to ask you or bring a problem to your attention; in this way, you are building trust by being transparent and giving them what they need in order to trust you. While they might not be aware of it happening, they will grow to understand that they can trust you to let them know anything they need to know and they don’t need to worry about you or hover over your shoulder.
You can implement the checks and balances, and build trust, all by yourself. This should be your number one goal when you’re new, since that trust is what will carry you forward in this relationship and role.
How do you know when you can bend the rules for people at work? Has anyone ever given you the benefit of the doubt? Leave your thoughts in the comments!