Psychology working for you to deliver successful part-time, flexible and remote working

Our guest writer, Sarah Clarke, organisational psychologist from Occupational Mind Group looks at how psychology is used in the workplace to deliver successful flexible working, part-time and remote working for the benefit of individuals, teams and organisations.

Over 10 years ago I was asked to embrace flexible working in my team. I did. We led the way with it. I was impressed with the results, performance increased by 20%, employee engagement hit 100% and yet the first bit of feedback I got from my Manager was ‘I am a bit worried, apparently you and your team are never working and people have started calling you the part-timers?’ I was choked. Angry. Frustrated. Yet I held my nerve, told him we had done what was asked and embraced flexible working and gave examples of how performance and output had increased across my team.

As an Organisational Psychologist and experienced senior leader, I specialise in organisational culture, using psychology (which is the science of human behaviour) to deliver changes. The benefit of flexible working was demonstrated 35 years ago, before mobile phones were prevalent, where research showed that giving people the ability to work flexibly significantly increased employee satisfaction without any reduction in output (i). Today, extensive research shows flexible working improves staff retention, increases employee engagement, improves recruitment and helps ensure diversity of the workforce, in addition to many other benefits (ii). Figures show organisations have reduced unscheduled time off by 50%, reduced sick leave by 33% or increased annual turnover by $50m (iii) due to flexible working.

So why were 55% of British workers still stuck working onsite at a desk last year? In my experience of helping organisations bring about cultural change, it is often because leaders don’t understand the benefits these working patterns can bring to their organisations. So how can psychology help?

Major benefits can be achieved by understanding the psychology of trust. People have varying propensities to trust. We learn trust during childhood and our experiences. Trust is the bridge between the known and the yet-to-be-known. A basic human encounter is the starting point of trust. Yet, technology is reducing the quality of these social encounters dramatically. One email pretending to be from your bank and your distrust-ometer increases. The news is all about distrust. Trust is decreasing. Years ago no one would think to lock their door, today we have cameras linked to our phones, such is a lack of trust.

Psychological research shows people tend to trust in hierarchies below their own position. People trust their dog, their children, their partner. People don’t tend to trust people who have power over them e.g. the ‘tax-man’, their bosses. The only way to improve flexible working is to improve trust.

Leaders need to give trust first, communicate effectively and authentically show up at work (iv). People can diminish trust with the push of a button, for example, copying in everyone on an email, over-promising and under-delivering, telling half-truths or operating on the dark side of office politics (v). I remember saying I liked to talk to people, instead of using emails, and my boss at the time said ‘but then you don’t have any written proof about what they said’. If you don’t trust your team you can’t embrace part-time, flexible or remote working. This was the issue with my boss questioning me. He trusted me but didn’t know my team and so struggled to trust them. It was another 6 months before we built that trust between them. But that only worked because he trusted me as their leader. So what can you do to build trust?

  • Discuss and agree ground rules.
    Ensure you know how and when people can be contacted. I found shared diaries extremely helpful as I could see where my team was without having to phone them. Continually asking where they are will erode trust.
  • Phone each other for a chat.
    In the office you chat about life. This builds trust. You learn about families and life outside work. Make sure you do this with your remote team as often as possible. Find a time which suits you and your team members for a chat. A mixture of online, telephone and skype works well.
  • Get feedback. Be open. Act on it.
    I was given feedback that flexible working was stressing my team out when I used to phone them last thing on a Thursday (I didn’t work Fridays). On reflection I did this to allow me to sign off for the weekend but it was having a negative impact on them. I was given this feedback. I adapted. This issue with flexible working was resolved, performance and engagement increased.

Another significant way in which organisational psychology can help is by understanding communication. The diagram below is from Psychology Today (vi) and outlines how the communication process works.

The basic communication process

How humans communicate has changed over time. Mehrabian (vii) demonstrated the importance of nonverbal communication summarising that 55% of communication is from body language, 28% is from tone of voice and 7% is the words spoken. An added complexity is that these percentages depend on the context (e.g. what is the history between the people?), the cluster (e.g. does a single gesture seem consistent with every other gesture) and the congruence (e.g. do the spoken words match the body language). For example, if someone falls and says they are fine (7% spoken) but they are grimacing (55% body language) and voice is shaky (28% tone of voice) this is an example of incongruence and you may want to double check they really are ok. It is often said that when someone is folding their arms it is a sign that they are being defensive, but it could also be that they are cold, so look for a cluster of signs and not just one. The challenge with flexible or remote working is that conversations do not take place face to face so signs are missed and assumptions can be incorrect.

Below are some actions you can take to facilitate effective and efficient communication which will help create a platform for remote or flexible working to be a success:

  • Be honest.
    If someone asks you on the phone if you are ok. Be honest.
  • Use online video communication.
    This helps you build rapport as you can see facial expressions.
  • NEVER multi-task whilst communicating.
    We have all done it. Listening to someone on the phone and reading emails or checking texts. Don’t do it. Your level of understanding will diminish and the communicator will hear these signs in your voice which are often misinterpreted.

In the UK the benefits of flexible working could generate an extra £90bn in the UK economy and reduce commuting time by 533 million hours per year. Yet only 6.2% of jobs currently advertised make any reference to flexible working (viii). It is time to embrace change. For our free factsheet, including activities to create trust and improve communication, please email us at info@occupationalmindgroup.com quoting flexible work.

i Orpen, C. (1981). Effect of flexible working hours on employee satisfaction and performance: a field experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 66(1).

ii Employees to embrace flexible working. (2017). Harvard Business Review: Behavioural Economics. https://hbr.org/2017/11/how-we-nudged-employees-to-embrace-flexible-work

iii University of Kentucky Institute for Workplace Innovation.(2010).

iv https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/trust-the-new-workplace-currency/201208/10-ways-effective-leaders-build-trust-0

v https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/trust-the-new-workplace-currency/201207/10-simple-behaviors-diminish-trust

vi Meek, W. (2013). Basic of communication. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/notes-self/201307/basics-communication

vii Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal communication. New Brunswick.

viii https://timewise.co.uk/

Agile, Flexible working, Recruitment & Retention, Psychology

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