Flexible Working from the Perspective of a Line Manager/Team Leader

communication at work d&i strategies inclusive leadership managing working parents return to work May 31, 2016

Inclusiveness and gender parity is fortunately a key focus for astute organisations. One strategy deployed considers how to better support professionals during the challenging transition to parenthood; so that they feel it is possible to continue with professional aspirations and successfully juggle family life. This is not specific to female talent. As the next generations of male leaders emerge with clear expectations on the role they want to play as a father, organisations need to demonstrate their appreciation of family values to attract and retain top talent.

All this is great news for parents – there will be a significant positive impact on reducing the stress and overwhelm that is typical of this period, frequently losing to resignation &/or burn-out. The danger is that this stress is transferred to Line Managers and Team Leaders, who need to adapt to frequently changing needs of a team and movement of people within the team. So, how can this group of Leaders be adaptable and agile, to effectively manage and support new flexible working policies?

Open Communications

You wouldn’t be the 1st Manager who upon hearing the news that one of your talented members of the team is pregnant, you feel a sinking dread, silently (hopefully) asking “how are we going to cope without you?”. Be mindful that your reaction to the news will set the tone for the coming months – the more trust that is evoked now, the better for both of you. Focus on the positive news for your team member, acknowledge that her expertise will be missed and focus on some of the practicalities:

Agree open communications between the two of you: what does the individual need to ensure this is a smooth run up to their departure? What do you need as the Team Leader/Manager? When do you want to inform the team and the wider community? On-going, ensure you have an open door policy.

Put a meeting in the diary to start brainstorming ideas regarding the transfer of work – ideally 3 months prior to the departure. As a Manager, it is normal to feel the pressure that you need to solve this. In fact, your team member will be the best person to come up with potential solutions – they know their work inside out. Together, use this as an opportunity to also take a step back and see whether there could be any improvements to workflow &/or ownership, to create more efficiencies. Also, reflect on the professional development of the employee – with this break, what is the opportunity here to let go of tasks that no longer challenge and better leverage strengths. By engaging the individual in this thinking, not only do you gain greater insight, you also help manage their fears which often arise at this time – “will I become invisible and obsolete now that I have shared my news?”

The theme of open communications and trust needs to remain throughout the period of changes. During the leave, agree regular touch points. A common fear for Managers is that an individual may change their mind and ask to return with new hours or not at all. Rather than second-guess if this will arise, you will be in a much stronger position knowing in advance whether such changes are likely, by having conversations in between.

A fortnight prior to their return, check in with the individual regarding any concerns they may have and what will make the transition back smoother. Often, Managers hold back from asking such open questions for fear of what solutions they may need to offer. Actually, experience has taught us that, simply being ‘heard’ and having the opportunity to share any fears, can ease the stress of a returning employee – which in turn will ease your stress. If practical solutions are required, create them together. It is not all on your shoulders.

In the 1st few weeks back, keep talking – it can be a simple 5 minutes “how are you?” on your part but it has a much bigger impact on the employee. One Manager was amazed at the appreciation of a returning employee when she was invited to have lunch with him in week one. A small gesture but again, it set the foundation and on-going trust needed to help an employee quickly adapt back in to the workplace – a relief for all concerned!

If you work for a truly forward thinking organisation, the conversations above may be with one of your new Fathers who has decided to opt for longer parental leave. The above guidance is just as applicable here – individuals need to be assured that by taking this choice, their career opportunities will not be negatively impacted and their transition back is positive and energising.  

 Co-create Solutions with the team

Once you and the employee have agreed when to announce the news, leverage the team’s expertise and ideas to brainstorm how to best manage the period of absence. Often, the team is left out of decision-making and they are then asked/told what they need to do, which can create conflict in the team. By including the team in this planning, typically more innovative solutions arise and individuals have the opportunity to step up, to take over pieces of work which play to both their strengths and interests. When one volunteers for a piece of work, there is immediately more accountability and buy-in to the decision.

Again, encourage open communications with the team and feedback, so that any concerns are aired and team toxins do not start creeping in.

Develop Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and those of the people around you. People with a high degree of emotional intelligence know what they're feeling, what their emotions mean, and how these emotions can affect other people. For leaders, having emotional intelligence is essential for success. Recognising your own stress when the team will be changing allows you effectively manage it and not project that stress on to the individual and wider team. There are many elements to Emotional Intelligence but these elements are particularly worth paying particular attention to:

Leaders with empathy have the ability to put themselves in someone else's situation. Practice the art of looking at situations from other people's perspectives. Think of the individual leaving, the team, other key stakeholders.

Notice your body language – what are you not saying verbally that your body is saying for you? What is the impact on the trust and relationship with this individual?

Acknowledge and respond to feelings/emotions rather than run away from them. We often believe that we need to start providing a solution and fix the individual. Actually, allowing someone to be seen and heard is all they need.

During times of change, communication is critical. How well do you communicate? Think of the perspectives piece above – what do you need to communicate to address concerns or potential conflicts as they arise. Recognise the efforts of team members at a time when you are asking for their adaptability and support.

Walk the Talk

You don’t need to be a parent to walk the talk! Notice your own work/life balance – are you sending emails/making phone calls in the evenings and at weekends? What messages are you sending out to the team regarding expectations and managing your own workload? This may well the be the time for you to re-evaluate and consider what boundaries you need to put in place, so that you can thrive at work and out of work!


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