The value of being flexible

A 2015 survey by Citrix found that 77 per cent of small business workers list a flexible working arrangement as important when looking for a new role. So being willing to carve out a situation that works for everyone could lead to both attracting new team members and retaining excellent ones.

At its very core, flexibility means the ability to change to respond to different circumstances. With such a fluid concept, there are ways to construct arrangements that produce the best results for everyone - even when teams are small and budgets are lean.

Small business owners and their team need to be on the same page with flexible working arrangements

Starting with honesty

Leanne Faulkner is the director of Fortitude at Work, a company focused on the mental health of entrepreneurs and small businesses. She explains that when it comes to creating flexible work arrangements, clarifying intentions and presumptions up front with your team member is essential. “You really have to be honest,” she says, adding that a successful arrangement is about having agreed expectations, along with a realistic understanding about what can be produced in the allocated time.

A discussion is not enough, however. Faulkner says it's imperative to follow up in writing so there are no misunderstandings. “Have a good job description and a clear discussion around performance expectations that is documented and that both parties agree on,” she suggests. “Not just something casual that says, 'I hope you can do this' or [worse] a simple assumption that the other person will take responsibility.”

Faulkner warns that if you aren’t willing to write down terms, then any flexibility you offer has to genuinely come from an unconditional place. “If [I am a small business owner and] have expectations that people are going to perform or deliver higher productivity levels because I let them leave work early, put on staff lunches or give them extra days off, and I don’t get that unspoken assumption met, I end up building resentment,” Faulkner explains.

Whether you formalise the arrangement or keep things fluid but unconditional, “Both ways are achievable in small business," says Faulkner. "It’s just whatever works for you.”

Prioritising what matters most 

For Surfing World magazine editor Vaughn Blakey, defining flexibility at work was easy – he needed to be able to work away from his office in Avalon, NSW. “I fell in love with a total babe who lived in Byron [Bay NSW] and couldn’t stand the idea of not being with her every waking moment, so I spoke to management about the possibility of working remotely,” he explains. “Initially they weren’t thrilled at the idea but thankfully there’s a lot of respect and value placed in the staff and after some back and forth and a few compromises we agreed to a three-month trial to see how things would go. That was just over a year ago and things have been great.”

“Work is what you do, not where you go,” Rami Houbby, managing director of internet telephony service provider NFON UK told The Telegraph. Confirming that, a recent report 'Your Work Your Way' (commissioned by Officeworks) found that 53 per cent of small business owners offer their employees the chance to work outside the office. And more importantly, only a small number of workers think their output will suffer if they’re not physically in the workplace.

The report found that 42 per cent of employees who worked flexibly said they were more productive, 33 per cent said there were fewer distractions and 29 per cent said it was easier to focus.

In Blakey’s case, he says the pay-offs have been significant. “I’m far less distracted,” he confirms. “I focus on being as productive as possible and once the day is done, barring some sort of special project or monumental story, I'm in an environment that is a long way removed from office pressures and demands. I find I can snap into my other life priorities much faster which leads to less stress and a better overall energy and attitude when I flick on my computer the next morning.”


Truly embrace what you’ve agreed upon

Consider what your practical needs are before agreeing to an arrangement. Can you really say you don’t mind when someone gets the work done (as long as it gets done) and not be irritated when you see an Instagram picture of them sunbaking at the beach when a deadline is imminent? If a team member is working remotely, do you expect them to be accessible via phone and email when you call? Are there meetings you expect them to come into the workplace for? Clarify the expectations up front, agree upon exceptions to the rule and be willing to truly allow the interpretation of that agreement to play out.

Being transparent is critical

Being open about what you’re doing and your ability to deliver is essential in creating trust in a flexible arrangement, Blakey says. “People need to know your movements, be confident about your availability and feel like the team structure and enthusiasm is in no way affected by the fact you’re working outside of the office environment,” he says. “This has to be as transparent as possible because the second you’re out of contact and nobody knows where you are or what you’re doing… well it doesn’t take long for things to go poisonous very quickly when people can’t do their jobs to the best of their ability because you’re seemingly off the grid.”

Making tech work for you

“It’s important to connect with online resources. Reach out to places like Flying Solo, which is a fantastic online hub spot for small business people,” says Faulkner, explaining it will offer flexible ideas that may work for your business. “Joining relevant industry associations is important as well.”

You can also use apps and programs to make things more seamless and shareable, or to maintain communication. Some effective solutions include Slack (a team messaging program), Trello (a project management tool), Skype or Google Hangouts (for video conferencing and instant messaging) and G Suite (for shared online drives).

Apps and other programs will help you and your staff to touch base regarding flexible working arrangements

Setting boundaries: what flexibility is not

Faulkner says that working flexibly shouldn’t simply mean working erratic hours or being constantly contactable. “The hard thing is kidding yourself you’re being flexible when in reality you’re actually working an 18-hour day,” she explains, adding that if someone prefers night work that's fine, provided they are allowed the mornings to do what they choose, like going for a walk or spending time with their family. "Flexibility is not about overwork," stresses Faulkner.

Positive outcomes take work

A flexible arrangement doesn’t instantly lead to a perfect situation. Blakey admits to struggling with the extensive travel that’s now a regular fixture in his life. “I live 1000kms from the office and I’m expected to be in twice a month for magazine deadlines and meetings,” he explains. “From the front door at home to the front door of the office is four hours at absolute best and all the planning that goes in and around those trips to Sydney is really full on, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than being stuck in peak hour traffic twice a day every day, which I did for 15 years.” (And of course, he’s also waking up to his loved one every day, too.)

When it’s you who's craving the flexibility

If you left corporate life behind in search of a less structured workplace, it may come as a shock when you realise you actually have to define what that means and how you can work more freely and still deliver results – whether that relates to where you work, how you work or at what times.

You need to define what's important to you. Is it being able to go for a swim every morning or hit the gym at lunch? How can you rearrange your day to accomodate that?

Faukner says she's constantly interested in how different businesses embrace flexibility. “I have some clients who like to work in shared working spaces because just that environment ensures their productivity will stay high, they are around other people who are focused and motivated and that environment helps them get jobs done,” she says. “Others like to work in general spaces like cafés and libraries, because as a sole operator there can be a huge sense of isolation. Even if you don’t have a shared focus there, you’re with others."

Done right, flexibility can empower your team member - and hopefully, yourself! - to achieve the goals they aspire to in both work and life. “If you’ve got [a work situation] that allows you to reach your other goals, like picking your kids up from school, then more power to you,” enthuses Faulkner. “You’re not a slave to the desk, it’s the other way around and that’s the essence of flexibility really – it all comes back to being honest about what you do and who you are.”