What To Do When Flex Falls Apart

Your work set up was almost ideal. You were working from home two days a week and in the office three. You had childcare during your days at home but you had the flexibility to take the kids to the pediatrician or run an errand or two occasionally. Working outside the office gave you the space and piece of mind you needed to do your work without the chaos of commuting. It was working well. Until, apparently, it wasn’t.

Out of the blue, your boss/colleague/supervisor calls you in her office. She tells you that circumstances have changed and she needs you in the office, every day. You are blindsided and very hurt by the sudden ultimatum. With no alternative, you start coming in every day and begin looking for a new job on the side. You try to see the upside of your new arrangement but mainly you feel like she’s questioning your credibility and reputation.

What’s next? Do you suffer in silence and seethe? Do you put your head down and power through until hopefully, one day, circumstances will change?  That seems to be the path of least resistance for many of the people I work with. It’s no wonder why so many of us feel disengaged at work. I propose a different strategy.

Three things to keep in mind when flex falls apart:

Stop resenting, start problem solving. The failure of a flex policy doesn’t just reflect your work alone. Don’t think about it de-facto performance review. It reflects a work ecosystem. Your manager is likely responding to a set of urgent organizational (and likely a few personal) priorities. If she is overwhelmed by things she can’t control, cancelling your flex work arrangement may seem like an easy way for her to feel on top of things. What pressures have recently come up in your organization or industry? Try to figure out how you can support her in tackling urgent projects or deliverables. Reflect honestly on your work of late and think about ways you can be even more effective.  Brainstorm some concrete strategies for supporting her and building momentum.

You are not just a pretty face. When your flex arrangement is put on hold,  it can feel you as though you valued for face time above all else. Take some time to articulate your value add beyond time in the office. What are your unique skills and strengths? How do you do you contribute to the task at hand? You need to be your own best advocate when negotiating work arrangements. Getting clear on this will help you gain confidence and navigate the job search process, if that seems like the natural next step.

Be transparent and then try again.  While your flexible work arrangement may not work for your manager now, it doesn’t mean it won’t ever work again. The best way to build the necessary trust for flexibility is through clear and direct communication. Make sure both you and your manager understand mutual goals and how progress toward those goals will be measured. Agree on practices you can put in place to ensure that you are making headway and staying engaged. When you are able to put a new arrangement in place, schedule a time to revisit it. Check in regularly to work out kinks and address challenges. 

Recent news about workplace flexibility has been mixed. There is excitement about policy new initiatives well as investigations of abuse where comprehensive policies exist. (Here's a great clip from my colleague Teresa Hopke at Life Meets Work.)  The reality is, in a 24/7 work culture, everything about how we work has become more complicated.  Effective work cultures that offer flexibility cannot have cookie cutter solutions for every department or employee. The process of making work work is a collaborative, and highly customized effort. Employers need to offer it, train their managers to manage it, and employees need to learn to manage it too.