How to Be Flexible in the Workplace
Responding to Change Quickly and Positively
Rapid technological advances, along with fast-paced changes in global markets and the political landscape, mean that today's workplaces are often unpredictable.
Your organization has probably undergone major change of one kind or another recently – most have. Perhaps, as a result, you've found yourself taking on new responsibilities, or working with a variety of different teams or across different functions.
Maybe your industry is in a state of upheaval, with no two days the same, or you've had to adapt to working under a succession of different managers. All of this means that it's more important than ever that you are flexible and responsive to sudden change.
In this article, we explain what it means to be flexible, how it can benefit you, and how you can achieve it.
What Is Flexibility?
Flexibility is the capacity to adjust to short-term change quickly and calmly, so that you can deal with unexpected problems or tasks effectively. Here are a few examples of how you might demonstrate it:
- Offer to help out another team member if you notice that they are overloaded.
- Volunteer to cover a colleague's work while they're on leave.
- Consider allowing people to work from home to help them achieve a better work/life balance.
- When you come across a problem, offer up a variety of solutions that might fix it.
Flexibility Vs. Adaptability
Flexibility is similar to adaptability, but the two are not the same. In relation to your attitude and behaviors at work, they can be defined as follows:
Flexible in the way you work. Willing to accommodate others' needs and not be preoccupied with your own objectives.
Adaptable to the prevailing circumstances, i.e. having the ability to adapt to the way other people work and cope with differences in conditions or environment.
Why Be Flexible?
Most of us have experienced change in the workplace at some point. In fact, according to research from the Manpower Group, 74 percent of U.K. businesses have undergone a restructure in the past five years.
We can't always predict when changes like these are going to happen. That's why flexibility is so important. When you're flexible, you're versatile, resilient and responsive to change. You can adapt to unexpected demands in the workplace – sudden surges in work, urgent problems, or an unpredictable event, such as a cyber security breach or financial crash, for instance.
Flexible people are highly prized by managers and businesses. They help to stabilize situations when crisis strikes. They keep objectives achievable and within reach, and they often "go the extra mile" to support colleagues who are in need of advice or help.
How to Be More Flexible
Flexibility involves having an open, team-centered attitude, and retaining a strong sense of identity and purpose. Here are seven ways that you can achieve this:
1. Focus on Your Core Values
Having key attributes that don't shift can keep you grounded during periods of change. Using your core values and your organization's culture as anchor points will help you to decide what you can and can't agree to when you receive an unexpected request.
Taking on responsibility for a project that will get your team nearer to meeting its annual target is one thing; but, if this involves doing something that is legally or ethically dubious, you should steer clear.
2. Be Open-Minded
You'll likely find it easier to understand and manage a situation if you look at it from different perspectives. For example, if you're looking to launch a new product, you might first like to analyze it from different viewpoints.
How will it fit into the marketplace, for instance? What will the impact be on your production process, and your sales and marketing teams? How do you think your customers will react to it?
Make it a priority to listen to and understand the views of the other people involved. If your manager asks you to help out on an urgent project, for example, consider how it will benefit the team or your career, rather than simply thinking, "Oh no, not more work!"
3. Develop Your Skill Set
If you don't make an effort to learn new skills, you'll likely find that when an unexpected event does occur, you won't be equipped to deal with it.
Tackle this by staying curious about what's going on around you. Keep up-to-date with new industry trends by reading up on the latest innovations and research, and broaden your knowledge by cross-skilling.
Make an effort to work with people or on tasks that you would normally avoid. There really might be better ways of doing things. And stretch yourself – get into the habit of trying new things instead of being stuck in a routine.
4. Be Optimistic
It can be difficult to stay positive when you know a large, urgent project is on the horizon. But, looking on the bright side and focusing on the positives will help you to stay resilient and focused. A break or change in your routine could be an opportunity to learn new skills, or to work with different colleagues, new clients or new suppliers.
5. Stay Calm
When expectations shift suddenly, it can be disconcerting and you might find that you start to feel anxious. Counter the effects of stress (such as loss of focus and impaired decision making) by taking steps to restore calm. You can explore tips and techniques for doing this in our article, Managing Stress.
6. Plan Ahead
Even if you can't predict the future, you can still plan for the unexpected.
Anticipating the next new development, measuring risks and preparing for them are key skills. For example, if you are pitching a product or service to a potential client, it's a good idea to think about the questions that they might ask, and to prepare your answers ahead of time.
7. Have a Strong Support Network
Having a strong and stable team around you is essential in times of flux. It means that, no matter the difficulties you are facing, you have people you can rely on to support you.
Strengthen the relationships that you have with your co-workers by building trust. You could start by, for example, offering to take on additional tasks when a colleague is busy, or by helping them with a system or process that they're finding difficult to use.
Not only will this boost collaboration and positivity across your team, but it will likely encourage your colleagues to return the favor when you are the one in need of help.
Don't allow a commitment to flexible working to become an opportunity for others to take advantage of you. Make your boundaries clear and assert your right not to become a "dumpster" for all the jobs that nobody else wants.
How to Encourage Team Flexibility
As a manager, you're responsible for developing a team culture that values and encourages flexibility. The following tips can help you to do just that:
Overcome Resistance to Change
Expecting your team members to adapt to changing circumstances automatically can be a "big ask."
So, the next time a big change is on the horizon, encourage your people to be more flexible by clearly explaining why the change is necessary. Spell out its benefits to them and to the organization, and take care not to gloss over any details.
For more tips on how to help your people to overcome resistance to change, read our article, Beckhard and Harris' Change Equation.
Foster a Sense of Security
To be flexible, people need to be able to "think on their feet" and act boldly in ways that are new and unfamiliar.
Give your people the self-confidence to do this by creating an environment in which they feel supported and trusted, and where they can test out new ideas without fear of failure or punishment. And encourage them to share their findings with the rest of the team.
Lead With Purpose
When people are clear on the goals that they need to reach, and what they need to do to achieve them, shorter-term challenges will have a less disruptive impact. So, be sure to clearly communicate your team's purpose and its shared objectives, and revisit them regularly so that everyone stays on track.
When people are given the freedom to be creative, they'll likely find it easier to adapt to new ways of working, to find solutions to problems, and to make better decisions when unexpected issues crop up.
Encourage creativity in your team by leading by example. Suggest new ideas yourself, and invite other people to offer feedback and suggestions. Not only will this encourage a sense of adventure, but it will also drive team collaboration and engagement.
Flexibility isn't just about responding to events quickly. It also involves responding to the different needs of your team members. When there's an urgent problem, you'll likely find that some people jump at the challenge, while others appear to cave under the pressure.
Don't "write off" these people. Remember just how much you're asking of them. Tap into your emotional intelligence by showing them that you understand and empathize with them about the challenges that they face. Ask if there's anything you can do to help them. Could you provide additional training, for example, or pair them up with a more confident colleague?
Finally, remember to give praise, and to reward your team members when they show initiative or have reacted well to a situation that demands flexibility.
Flexibility has become an increasingly valuable skill in modern workplaces where unpredictability and change is often constant.
When you are flexible, you are able to deal with unexpected challenges quickly, calmly and efficiently. But flexibility isn't just about reacting to situations as and when they arise. It also involves making substantial changes to the way we think, work and behave.
You can become more flexible by following these seven steps:
- Focus on your core values.
- Be open-minded.
- Develop your skill set.
- Be optimistic.
- Stay calm.
- Plan ahead.
- Have a strong support network.
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