In colonial times Delhi, free-roaming cobras posed a danger to the public. The government thought they had a great found a solution - offer a monetary reward to any local who brings in a dead cobra. For a while it seemed to work – many dead snakes were handed over and reward was paid out.
But soon, it became apparent people were breeding cobras to get the reward - and so it ended the programme. Left with worthless cobras, the locals released them into the wild only to end up with more cobras then they started with.
Above is a perfect example unintended consequences, just of one of a number of reasons why we at Juggle Strategies just do not like policies.
Just think about what a policy is – it is by definition intended to tell people what to do, to be prescriptive about how to deal with a situation – to tell them what is wrong and what is right. Most examples we have seen seem to manage to the lowest common denominator and so when applied to everyone makes adults feel like they are being treated like children. And in our experience, they in turn start behaving like kids.
On the other hand we are trying to implement flexibility – which by its own definition is mean to bend and shift and be well… flexible. So the first unintended consequence is that by the time you have written that policy and you have tried to deal with all different aspects of flexibility, which can require a lot of “grey” areas, you have written a document that screams – TOO HARD BASKET! And signalled nothing but lack of support for it.
The other unintended consequence is that in an effort to describe what is “allowed” or reasonable HR sets expectations, which people then anticipate they are entitled to. For example, saying that working from home is not allowed more than 2 days a week, sets the expectation that 2 or less days is ok, where there may be times and situations that no time from home will work for the team, the individual and the outcomes they need to deliver. But the policy in a way takes the manager’s ability to have the conversation and say no.
On the other hand, if someone is working on a massive report they need to make sure is exceptional, or are working through a mountain of data that needs to be right, then working from home that week 4 days may deliver a better outcome for that piece of work, and the policy precludes that.
These are just a couple examples of unintended consequences, and there are many, many more.
TRUST YOUR LEADERS
The other reason we do not like to write a flex policy is that it seems so counterintuitive - if flexibility is going to be successful based on a reciprocal, trusted relationship between a person and their manager, then bringing in a piece of paper to tell them what to do – prescriptively – does not make any sense. Policies take away the conversation that is so important to have. Yes, these conversations are the hardest part of any manager’s job as they can be messy, and they can be tricky, but without them there is no trust, no understanding, no being on the same page.
MORE ON SIGNALS:
Third reason we do not like a policy is because of what it signals and what it does not. Rules and clearly defined processes signal a lack of trust. You are saying that people just will not know how to make the right decision themselves. But think about it – if you do not trust your people to make decisions on where and when they work, and your leaders to help shape and guide those decisions then maybe they should not be working for you.
And the other side of that coin is what they do NOT signal . A lot of HR practitioners we speak to believe that the strongest signal of organisations support is the policy. Our experience is that this is not the case. We have now surveyed more than a thousand people across AU and NZ and when we ask them what signals do they see from their organisation that they support flexible work – policy is almost never mentioned. What does always get mentioned is leadership role modelling, their banter, what is recognised and celebrated and most strongly what their own manager says and does.
So, if you really are keen to make sure flexible working works for your business, policy should be (if you need one at all) one of the last things on your list.
Now, please let me clarify – we are not saying you go crazy and let chaos rule. And the number one reason people want to have a policy is to ensure fairness of approach. That can be done differently.
First expectation gets set that absolutely everyone has a right to have a conversation about what flexibility can work for them. Then we work with our clients to define a set of principles that they want people to consider when having conversations those. They put together guidelines on how things should work, what people’s roles are in the process and things they should keep in mind. They also provide examples, and context so that the manager and the person asking for flex can make decisions that make sense for not just them (as they will be the best judges of what is right) but for the wider business as well. They do not take away the “gray” that they have to work within – they let those that are closest to the situation navigate the fog.
The wonderful thing is that it seems like the tide is shifting in leadership conversations. Our favourite example is the incredible Patty McCord former Head of People and Culture for Netflix (we are massive fans of Powerful), is driving the mindset shift. As she says – we do not need to empower people – they are powerful when they walk through the door of the organisation. We just need to stop taking that power away with all of the prescriptions we put on them when they join. If Netflix can build a multi billion-dollar business that is now worth more than Disney based on a slide deck and not policies, surely the rest of us can at least learn something from that.