Does this story sound familiar? Susie is the manager (boss, owner, etc.). She's walking down the hall when a team member, Dave, pops out and says "Susie, I need Thursday afternoons off so I can go to my daughter's soccer games." Susie is flustered and caught off-guard. She likes Dave. He's a go-getting team member. But is it all right to grant special work arrangements that nobody else has?
When an employee approaches you and asks for special work arrangements that other people don't have, knee-jerk thoughts may surface: But we all work 9a-5p here. We can't just change the rules to suit you. What would everybody else think if I cut this deal for you? Like Susie, you may have qualms that special work arrangements will damage your work culture if mishandled.
All understandable concerns, and predictable in the initial jolt of a request for special work arrangements. But these concerns are contrary to the possibility that special work arrangements, handled properly, are fantastic launching-points for employee development and a positive organizational culture. Like many other leadership moments, requests for special work arrangements benefit from more reflection and less reflex.
Companion Post: Are you the person who'd like to pitch a special work arrangement to your manager/boss? Want to do it without sparking a reflexive "no"? Check out our guide to proposing special work arrangements.
Back to the Manager in this duo... After the initial jolt, how can Susie - and you - effectively field requests for special work arrangements?
In organizational psychology, special arrangements that change the "rules of work engagement" are called "idiosyncratic deals"—because they're unique to particular people and idiosyncratic personal needs.
The context? Special work arrangements are: (a) nothing new, (b) incredibly common, and (c) becoming more prevalent. Special work arrangements for individual employees occur even in hyper-structured, bureaucratic civil service organizations4. And as work cultures continue to shift towards greater decentralization and flexibility, employee proactivity has a new role to play in job performance and organizational success3,4.
There are as many different special work arrangements as there are workers, but generally these requests strive to accomplish a few main goals...
Managers have the interesting job of determining whether, how, and when special work arrangements can happen in ways that maintain the integrity of the employee-organization relationship. Requests for special work arrangements aren't all good or all bad. When someone requests special work arrangements, here's a reflective path to counteract the reflexive "no"...without swaying to a reflexive "yes" either.
Good news: Research highlights an inspiring correlation—proactive employees who have a good relationship with their supervisor (i.e., you) are more likely to request special work arrangements4,5. Like Susie's experience with Dave, requests you field may be most likely to come from people you would love to keep on board and happy..
When it comes to requests for special work arrangements, this correlation is meaningful. It's likely (yet not guaranteed) that the person making the request feels comfortable talking to you. And it's likely (again, not guaranteed) that the person has enough initiative to stick to any agreement you come up with.
That's a good foundation for taking a deep breath, putting the reflexive "no" aside for a moment, and considering the possibilities...
Successfully creating special work arrangements carries many positive outcomes. Research affirms that successful i-deals can...
...inspire stronger commitment to the organization and deeper work engagement5.
...improve your working relationship with the person5.
...offer a chance to experiment with new working styles that may prove innovative1.
How does this particular request jive with your organization's values and culture? Are you a family-friendly company, and this person is asking for a schedule change to spend more time with family? Or are you a 11-hour-day, all-hands-on-deck culture and this person is asking to go part time?1.
If this request doesn't jive with your organization's values, be extremely cautious about granting it5. Antithetical i-deals create disconnects between your organization's values and your decisions. If granting an arrangement will be hard to justify to peers and higher-ups because of core values, it's time to either question whether the value still serves the business, or give a reflective "no."
On the other hand, if this request is in-line with your organization's values, then this arrangement could ultimately serve as an exemplar of those values, and you could feel proud to make it work5.
Think about short-term and long-term impacts. What would be required to implement this i-deal right now? What about if this i-deal extended indefinitely? What would be required then?1.
Factor in workplace fairness. How might you structure this special arrangement in ways that are fair to coworkers? How will you both present the arrangement to coworkers? (More on this later, but be sure to think it all through before you decide.)1.
Don't think of this as a battle or a give-and-take. It's a creative conversation about how to make an atypical arrangement mutually beneficial. It's cooperative problem-solving1.
Tips for aligning to a successful resolution...
Be mindful of cultural differences. People from different cultures may be accustomed to different norms for the conversation. Be explicit about how you plan to consider potential special work arrangements5. What do you expect from the person making the request? How much time and collaboration will be involved in your decision?
Clarify boundaries and time limits. Are you trying out an arrangement for six months, or indefinitely? Are you both clear on what is flexible and what isn't?1
Think experimentally. If the special arrangement works out well, it might be something you want to consider incorporating into your broader work culture. This could be the beginning of a happier, more adaptable work environment. If it doesn't work well, it's a learning opportunity helping to define work parameters that really matter1.
Enter the arrangement in good faith. Separately, answer the questions, "How will we know this is working for everyone? What role do I play, what role do you play? Is this something we can each enthusiastically take on?" Share the early warning signs that would cause second-guessing by either of you. What would cause the person who made the request to be uncertain of your commitment, thus causing stress and undermining the positive impact of having the i-deal in place? What would cause you to question the team member's commitment, thus undermining trust that special work arrangements will benefit (or at least not damage) engagement and performance?
Plan to re-visit the deal. Plan a check-in appointment to discuss special work arrangements a short while after the initial agreement, and periodically thereafter (e.g., six weeks from now, or once per quarter). It's hard to anticipate all outcomes of an i-deal before it gets put into action - but you know that going in. Scheduling a meeting with a clear purpose: (a) discuss how it's going for you, for the person who has the special arrangement, for coworkers and customers; and (b) revisit and tweak special work arrangements after you've seen the reality5.
Now that you've successfully aligned goals to find a creative and mutually beneficial special work arrangement, put it in motion thoughtfully. This isn't the time to clap your hands together and dive in. Here are some things to consider...
How should you frame special work arrangements to coworkers? While it may not be strictly necessary to divulge each and every special arrangement you might grant, open communication is a big part of managing i-deals effectively in your culture. If it's likely that other people in your organization will find out about a particular arrangement (e.g., "Where's Dave on Thursday afternoons?"), then it's best to get out ahead of interpretations and tell people what's going on upfront.
As with many decision communications, start with values. Remind people of your commitment to being family-friendly, or to promoting relevant professional development, or to supporting participation in personal and leisure activities when minor schedule adjustments don't cause a business impact.
Then evenly frame the deal in terms of flexibility and performance. If Dave is leaving early on Thursdays to pursue his MBA or to attend soccer games, talk about how he's agreed to dedicate extra time during the week to handling the client work he's missing on Thursdays. The idea is to avoid provoking coworker jealousy. Imbalanced explanations more easily trigger "it's not fair" reactions5.
Should you offer special work arrangements to others? By request or across-the-board? Some i-deals are best made on a case-by-case basis. Others, however, can form the basis for new organizational policies. How might special work arrangements improve your overall work culture if everybody could negotiate them? How will you respond if one or more people hear the news of your thoughtful decisions and offer a resounding "me too!"?5.
If you have to take the terms of an i-deal request higher up the chain to get it approved, remember the work you did in the "values check" step and your "align goals" step. Your best bet for advocating final approval is to articulate how saying "yes" to this request aligns with core values, and how you've thought through the particulars of the agreement already (like when you'll revisit the agreement, how you'll inform coworkers, and all the boundaries involved).
If you feel like you can't approve a request, break it up into parts. Are there pieces of the deal that you COULD approve? Is there an alternative version that might work?
If the request is well-intended, don't think of it as a yes/no situation. Consider the person's ultimate goal. Think of the initial request as only one way to achieve that goal. Brainstorm other possible routes to the same goal. If you can't fully approve the request, see if you can identify something to make the situation better. If Thursdays can't work, is there another day that could? If every week isn't a possibility, what about every other week? If the whole afternoon can't work, what about an hour or two?
However, if ultimately you cannot approve any piece of the deal, then thoroughly explain the values, workplace fairness concerns, and customer impacts that drive your decision. Research on workplace fairness shows that people can handle bad news when explained with logic and transparency. Go beyond the reflexive "no" to share the level of reflection you've given to the request2.