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Managing flexible teams in the public sector

Two case studies that look at managing flexible teams in the public sector.

Brian Hallinan, Manager, Environmental Reporting Team, Ministry of the Environment

Brian has a team of ten FTEs and so over the two years he has been manager, inevitably there have been changes in his team’s lives. Responding to these changes means there are now a wider range of flexible options operating.

“When I came into the team, it had one flexi-time person. Of the four days that she works, she had three days in the office and one from hours”.

Since then two or more people have started working part-time and the others are working flexible hours.

Looking for innovative solutions

Woman lying on ground and working on computer“One of the team who was project managing a large report went on parental leave” says Brian.

“When she wanted to return, I was looking for someone who could be the writer of our next big report. I was keen to have someone involved in crafting the story as we collected the data, rather than just coming in at the end. She came back initially one day from home and one day in the office and has increased her hours as more childcare became available.”

“It’s worked well. By integrating the writing role with the project, and spreading it over a longer period, it could easily be done on a part-time basis.”

Brian works from home one day a fortnight to have a bit of time for uninterrupted concentrated work. It started in a previous role when his partner worked late some nights. “I would go home about 1pm and do a bit of work, then do stuff with the kids. But I found that I could get a lot done by not being in the office.”

Flexible working is flexible

Other team members also work flexible hours. “From my point of view, if there are doing the job and are available for meeting when you need them, the clock hours are less relevant.”

He sees a definite benefit around staff retention. “It has meant having people coming back from parental leave and being able to find a way that they can get involved in the workplace at hours that are more suitable to them. With another staff member, working reduced hours made him more comfortable being here, because he could do the work he liked and the family stuff too.”

“I also think those who work outside the office, including me, would say that sometimes not being in the office, you can be more productive. And those who come in early feel that they can get through a lot of work before the others turn up.”

It has to be coupled with two-way flexibility so when there are busy periods and we might need someone present at a meeting, it’s not a rigid ‘No, I can’t possibly work this day’.”

Clear expectations

Brian sees the keys to success are clear expectations about work outputs over any particular period, being clear about staff availability via phone and email and having good communication.

His team uses a whiteboard tracker to record the big issues for the week and when people are around. This way everyone can keep track and be up to speed on what the team is doing. He also thinks it is important that there is at least an afternoon when everyone is in the office to do the “team-building stuff”. Although, occasionally people Skype in for team meetings.

“I guess another element is being willing to review arrangements,” he says. “All of our flexible work arrangements include a trial period to see how it goes. “You can make flexibility work and you can make it work in ways that keeps the flexible worker engaged, and still delivers for the team – as long as you have it planned out and there is a bit of flexibility both ways” he says.

Luke Southorn, Director Economic Development and Partnerships, Ministry for Primary Industries

Luke has over 20 years’ experience managing staff who work flexibly. “In nearly every case, people have valued the arrangement and it’s worked well for the organisation.”

It’s important that flexible work arrangements fit with the type of service your team provides. “We work on regional economic development at the interface between central Government and local communities. That often involved travelling and meeting with people outside the normal 9-5 day. We have six staff working from Nelson, one each working from Auckland, Tauranga and Whangarei and nine based in Wellington.”

Three staff work regular hours, other work regular flexible hours. For instance, one finishes at 3pm or 3.30pm and works online in the evenings because it fits with her family commitments. And everyone in the team has the option of starting and finishing times that suit them.

Man working with a baby on his lapLuke works from home or has an early finish when needed. “I worked from home for a couple of hours this morning because I had a bunch of reading to do. I’m better off doing this sort of thing at home and coming in a bit later. Most dats I tend to start early – I like that golden hour between 7am and 8am when others aren’t around. And occasionally I have pick-up duties for a grandchild.”

Flexibility benefits everyone

He sees offering flexibility as a win on all counts. “I’m interested in having people who are highly engaged in their work. Being able to work flexible hours can be a big contributor to that for some people.” But it also cuts both ways, as his team needs to be available outside of core office hours for meetings with external groups, and for travel. “Having clear expectations and regularly checking in on those is key to having it work well.”

“The other thing you need, and we are really fortunate here, is the technology – mobile devices, laptops, phones and remote access to information systems. It makes a huge difference that people can log in from home or anywhere and access is just as easy as if they were in the office.”

Culture change to focus on outcomes

“I think some managers fear that if people aren’t in the office and they can’t see them, then they won’t know if they are working properly. I’m interested in outputs and what people are achieving. That doesn’t mean people have to be in the office all day. As long as you have good strong channels of communication around what people are working on, and how they are going, it works well.”

He also thinks some manager worry that part-time staff might not be there when they are needed. “In reality that doesn’t happen very often. If you have systems in place to contact people or you have cover organised for someone when they aren’t here, it isn’t a problem.”

“My experience with people working part-time if that they are typically really good at managing their diaries, utilising their time on-site and have a strong service ethic. If you have those things then it becomes very easy.”

Review regularly

He suggests that if managers are negotiating flexible work for the first time they go into it thinking ‘How can we make this work?’ and presume the person is capable and motivated and wants to do a good job.

Although, he admits that if he had existing concerns about a person’s performance or attendance then he would be careful about entering into a flexible arrangement. “It wouldn’t be an outright ‘no’. I would want to talk to them about what might be needed to convince me it’s going to work. Having the right incentives and being clear on expectations is the key.”

He also suggests not locking yourself in. “You do need to think about what the team can sustain. For example, you can’t have everyone working a four-day week with no-one around on Monday. So, you have to have arrangements to review things and renegotiate if necessary.”

There is no doubt in Luke’s mind that changing labour market demographics are driving change. “If you look at the aging population, increased diversity and greater female participation in the workforce, there is a trend there that, as managers, we need to be adapting to. That’s important if you want to be competitive in attracting and engaging the hearts and minds of the people we need.”