“I want a pay raise.” How many times have we heard that as business leaders? At Shapiro Negotiations Institute, I’ve grown so accustomed to hearing it that I was taken aback a few years ago during an annual review when I was seated with an employee asking probing questions to find out what they wanted in the new year. To my surprise, they shared they wanted more flexibility rather than a pay increase. I thought to myself, it pays to ask!

Determining employees salaries is a pretty straightforward piece of management – it’s quantitative and something many of us learned in business school. But managing a request for an altered work style? That was a new one for me, and I felt I couldn’t be alone in that.

A recent survey conducted by Glassdoor reveals just how much my experience then has become a new normal. Nearly half (41%) of US job seekers are exploring and highly-valuing the ability to work remotely or work from home as a top decision-making criterion. This shift can lead to real challenges in management, HR, and company culture. As managers, it creates questions we’ve never had to answer before. Rather than resisting the desires of today’s workforce, we should be addressing them and using them when possible. These challenges can become amazing opportunities to create a work environment that will allow you to recruit, cultivate, and retain top-level talent over your competition.

Effectively navigating this transition boils down to two questions. How do you keep employees accountable while they demand autonomy and flexibility? And, how do you maintain high-performance and job satisfaction alike?

Understand Your Employees’ Desires

In a traditional (and possibly antiquated) work model, an employer desires production and output while an employee desires a paycheck. That paycheck was tied to hours worked, commission on volume of units, or a combination of the two. It is true that employees now seek more autonomy and flexibility as a general rule – and they are valuing this as much as the salary they make – but autonomy and flexibility are incredibly subjective terms.

In other words, to establish a system that addresses your employees’ desires, you must first understand what those desires are. Details are incredibly important. The two most common desires I’ve encountered as it relates to work flexibility are (1) the request to work-from-home / become full-time remote and (2) loosening the rigid 8-hour work day structure (punching in at 9 and punching out at 5) to one that allows employees to manage their time and work to their own unique schedules.

These desires can create tension and challenges in management. Removing the structures of in-office work and standardized work hours can make it tougher oversee employees, their work products, and their efficiency. It makes accountability a matter of trust, and it forces us to reconsider the factors we use to evaluate success. When physical tasks are being monitored, hours spent in-office actively working are critical. Managers wanted diligent employees they could count on to “show up.”

But how do you measure critical thinking? Or strategy development? Or creative concepting? More importantly, do those tasks require physical presence in-office between the hours of 9-5? If an employee thinks of a new, winning pitch idea while they are at home or out to dinner, are they owed overtime?

These examples highlight the importance of being flexible as managers to accommodate employee desires for flexibility. By working with employees to understand and articulate their desires for professional work-life, it is easier to foster a collaborative environment that is empowering and successful. And, to ensure employees uphold their side of the bargain, we recommend shifting your attention to the level of performance your employees deliver. This is the beginning to a new mindset for you as a leader and a driving motivator for your workforce.

Promote Performance-Based Work for Employees

For many or most companies, a standard benefits package comes with full-time employment, but that package may grow or expand over time. As you work to understand what your employees truly desire, you can evaluate the benefits you offer to consider where remote-work and flexibility fit in. Perhaps it is standard for levels of a certain seniority; perhaps it is available to employees at all levels after 6-months of work.

There is no single best solution; it must work for your company and the culture you have. In many cases, we recommend tying flexible-benefits to performance-based work. In other words, if an employee wants to be trusted to own their workflow, they must prove their abilities. The benefit becomes a reward to motivate them, rather than a standard, default offering.

Once you feel comfortable with their levels of contribution to your business and they’re hitting their individual KPIs, you can begin to reward them. Critics of flexible work schedules point to the risk of having employees abuse the system or take advantage of the employer’s generosity. After proving their value, employees could theoretically settle into an easy rhythm and do the bare minimum. This comes down again to trust and motivation. Pushing employees to set their own goals, reach for new heights, and own their autonomy can help ensure they are staying diligent and focused – wherever or whenever they are getting their work done.

Before this risk is ever an issue, however, managers can get ahead of it by setting clear expectations, working collaboratively with employees to shape the culture, and maintaining control of the work environment needed for success.

Controlling Your New Work Environment

We’ve established that the prospect of increased employee flexibility can be a bit foreign to begin with, even challenging for some. That’s why we recommend introducing and maintaining some sort of control over your environment. At the end of the day, work culture and office environment are extremely critical.

As you begin to manage around the shifting dynamics of flexible schedules or remote work, consider these strategies to maintain the right level of balance that works for your team:

  • Stagger Employee Remote Workdays. For many businesses, an in-office presence is vital. Active workplaces impact culture and come in handy during client visits, team building, and more. We recommended that you balance the flexibility of the employees who function at the same level. For example, it could be counterproductive to have all “director” level employees work remotely on a single day. This would leave a void in your office place, where junior members may feel they don’t have access to the people they need to communicate with daily. On the other hand, coordinating a shared remote-work day for all employees could ensure they are all present, together, and able to collaborate the remaining 4 days. The system has to work for your needs.
  • Set Proactive Guidelines. Setting expectations with your employees on the front-end is essential to avoid people abusing the new privilege you’re offering. There’s likely going to be days when you need all hands-on deck for a project you’re crashing on or have an important business prospect coming into the office. Ensure you communicate early and often with your team that on days such as these, it’s you’re going to require everyone to be present and working. Just as their employment will be guided by performance levels, this sort of freedom is driven by workplace demands.

The Value as a Business Leader

There is no shortage of innovative structures or working models in business today. From unlimited vacation time to virtual offices, businesses everywhere are working to embrace their employees and acknowledge the unique balance in individuals’ lives.

The increased desire for flexibility in the workplace isn’t solely a value-add for employees, it can be a benefit to you as a business as well. It can allow for you to explore even greater shifts in your work environment, like four 10-hour workdays with a 3-day weekend or reducing space in shared-workspace models by cycling through a staggered work-from-home schedule for portions of the staff. An evolving workforce is an opportunity to evolve your business model for maximum efficiency. Instead of being apprehensive of the change, grasp it early so you have the ability to lead and manage your team the best way for your business. Treat each discussion as a negotiation between two parties working with a shared goal; what is best for one should ideally fuel the success of the other. When compromises are needed, they should come from both sides. Make it a shared endeavor, a shared journey, and ultimately a shared success for all.

Andres Lares is the Managing Partner of Shapiro Negotiations Institute. He is responsible for the day to day operations of SNI. He also continues to provide negotiation training and serve as a coach with an emphasis on working with sports teams such as San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, Milwaukee Brewers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Brooklyn Nets. Outside of sports, his clients including companies from PwC to Boeing to Shaw Industries. He also has a focus in developing new initiatives such as interactive online training and virtual reality-based negotiation simulations and teaches one of the top-rated classes at Johns Hopkins University on sports negotiation. Twitter: @SNINegotiations; Facebook: Shapiro Negotiations Institute; LinkedIn: Andres Lares

Employees stock photo by Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock