How to Be a Family-Friendly Boss

I have a friend who is an ascending executive at an international financial firm. His career has always been demanding- long hours, lots of travel, ultra-high performance standards (which he always has met or exceeded). Several years ago, when his daughter was quite young, he was considering changing employers due to the incompatibility of his work’s demands with his need to be a present father.

Instead, he took a small leap of faith and requested that he be allowed to come into work at 12:30 on Wednesdays so he and his daughter could spend a full morning of daddy-daughter time every week, and that he be able to shift some tasks requiring travel to others. He promised to continue to put in equivalent hours, maintain his performance, and, of course, respond to work emergencies.

Even though this (or any) sort of accommodation was rare at this firm, his supervisor agreed, acknowledging that my friend was responsible, talented, and perceived to have great potential for top leadership. The timing of the request also helped my friend; there had recently been conspicuous turnover among mid-career professionals at this firm.

Fast-forward a few years, and my friend has continued on his career trajectory and has repaid the favor of a small, informal, family-related accommodation many times over by the value he adds to the firm. He was able to spend time building his lifetime bond with his daughter, and to be present throughout her one and only (and all-too-fleeting) childhood. He’s proved that work-family balance and high performance can be complementary rather than contradictory forces.

In my work with employers (usually advising on work-family balance for fathers), I sense that many managers believe in giving more employees this kind of flexibility — allowing them to fashion the particular arrangements that work for them while minimizing disruption of the workplace. However, many cannot see their way through existing HR policies and short-term business imperatives to know how to respond to such requests — let alone be proactive in suggesting possibilities to their people.

So here are a few guidelines for well-meaning supervisors who want to provide for more flexibility:

Focus on What, Not How or When. With today’s information technology, more and more work can be done in places other than the office and at times outside of traditional business hours. This is particularly true of knowledge work. However, many managers are stuck in thinking that their employees need to be in their offices to be fully productive. While office time is important, both for formal meetings and for those informal conversations that are so important for idea generation and team camaraderie, the fact is that most knowledge workers could get by with doing something on the order of 30% of their work from home (or other locations) and at non-traditional work times. Between the Internet, smartphones, and helpful computer programs such as FreeConferenceCall, Google docs, gotomyPC, and JoinMe, workers can effectively collaborate at a distance and remain accessible to clients and management.

Get Better at Measuring Performance. For managers to become comfortable with employees working more flexibly, they need to get better at measuring performance. When they don’t have a good handle on output, they rely on generalized impressions of people’s work, or worse yet of the people themselves (and fall prey to perception biases like halo, recency, and similarity effects). Especially in the more subjective realms of knowledge work, they default to false indicators of performance such as “chair time” or interpersonal skills.

The key is to move beyond the dreaded forms filled out each year and make performance evaluation current and continuous. Employees should submit regular progress reports, with any special arrangements regarding flexibility contingent on their upholding required levels of performance. Frequent sessions between supervisor and employee (timed around the rhythms of client projects rather than arbitrary annual deadlines) should focus on goal-setting and coaching as much as reviewing accomplishments. Managers are extremely busy, but there are few things that deserve your time more than creating a system that allows you to evaluate performance fairly and guide work constructively.

Delegate, Coach, and Let Your People Earn Trust. Another great investment that pays off in the long-term is spending the time to develop employees to the point where they can work more autonomously in the medium- and long-term. Providing coaching, feedback, and resources to help people not show up might seem counterintuitive — and it will surely be extra work, for a short while. The payback, however, comes with higher productivity and greater mutual trust. Having the confidence to allow employees more discretion over how and where they work frees you up to focus on more value-adding work than double-checking theirs.

Serve as a Work-Family Balance Role Model. Finally, you can help employees struggling with work-family balance by showing them how it’s done. Make it a habit at work to mention your family activities and ask your employees about theirs. Over time, these conversations can change the culture in your workplace from a typical one in which family time is to be hidden to one in which the whole person is valued and the needs of families are legitimized. Further, you can role-model working more flexibly. If your employees see you occasionally shifting hours, or using technology to work at a distance, they will feel more comfortable asking to do the same.

Managing employees is not easy, and for the most part, human resource policies in large organizations are designed to simplify things. But sometimes, in their tendency to focus on risks and avoid worse-case abuses, these policies serve to discourage supervisors from doing what makes sense. (Moreover, when HR does institutionalize formal “work-life” programs like formal flextime or telecommuting, the effect is often to produce negative consequences for those using them.) By allowing workers more control over the “work” part of their lives, direct supervisors can help them achieve the balance they need to meet both work and family commitments. In the short-term, this maintains and even enhances their job performance. In the long-term, it attracts and retains top talent — the kinds of professionals who do their best work when they know they are trusted, and valued as people with full lives.

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