Perpetual beta: managing morning people (unlike you)
(I wrote this late at night, when my mind finally wakes up to start my work day. FYI, the guy drinking coffee in the above photo is a younger, slimmer stock version of me. The morning hair is an accurate representation.)
Imagine you manage a team comprised of morning people by nature, yet you are not one yourself. What’s a night owl in charge of all those early birds to do?
I’m not sure when I stopped being a “morning person.” As a kid, I’d get up scary early to watch dear ol’ Tom and Del on “Today in Cleveland” hours before the homeroom bell. In high school, it was the pre-dawn promise of gooey, half-baked cookies the cafeteria still prepared that way to this very day. No, it must have been during college when late nights were the new norm, and trying to make it to my 7:45 a.m. physics class on time broke every natural law in my universe.
So when I got my first taste of flex benefits early in my career, I was forever hooked. As a fledgling PR agent, I was allowed—encouraged, actually—to work from 10:30 a.m to 7:30 p.m. versus the usual 9-to-5. For the agency, it meant a warm body to answer media calls and West Coast emails after normal quittin’ time. As for me, I could stop pretending to service clients well early in the day when my brain wasn’t fully awake. Plus I beat traffic at both ends, commuter-wise. For my clients, the agency and me, flexible work hours worked incredibly well.
As I assumed managerial roles later in my career, it became apparent to me that arriving at the office mid-morning would no longer pass muster. In those particular settings, flex options were non-existent or ill-defined, and even if the reverse were true, my staff was so stuffed with early birds that I felt obligated to be at their beck and call… which almost never worked. That, and “bright and early” employees were seemingly revered, even if there was no strategic advantage to be gained by sitting at one’s desk hours before it was remotely necessary (other than it looked good to certain executives, I neurotically supposed).
And staying after hours, as I often preferred, made no difference in the minds of those above or below my pay grade. If I remotely deviated from the “approved” start and end times of the work day, I felt as though I was not being a team player nor a responsible manager, let alone a good employee.
Yet throughout all this, I dutifully honored all of my subordinates’ personal flex arrangements and obliged the work-life balance of my own superiors, often more so than my own. Only did peer managers understand my plight, as they too shared the same feelings of incongruence and unseen sacrifice. I felt trapped between some middle-management rock and hard place, failing to protect my own flex options while catering to those of others. All the while, Human Resources was little help: “Flex is more for your subordinates than it is for you!” or “You’re the manager, you figure it out.”
Looking back, there were plenty of things I could have done differently. Simple measures I could’ve taken, even if I never felt empowered to do so:
- Personally and closely review documented company-wide flex policies, and if applicable, division- or department-wide policies. Seek clarification from HR and from supervisors such as whether, for example, start and end times of the day are explicitly or culturally immovable except in cases of emergency.
- Document each of my employee’s personal flex requests and needs. Rather than casually acknowledge during one-on-ones, set clear expectations on paper in accordance with company flex policies, ensuring that such benefits will be honored provided that personnel and project-based objectives are met.
- Document and communicate my own personal flex needs with staff and superiors to ensure total alignment. In my case, I needed to better show my team that I could manage them effectively, be it virtually or physically. What’s more, I needed to assure leadership that team goals were being met, even exceeded, whether or not I was at my desk strictly at the prescribed times.
- Find my happy place, even if it means leaving my post for good. For better or worse, some working environments simply don’t offer or adhere to the flex options you wish they had, particularly as a manager. Or flex is only acceptable for certain classes of worker but not so much for others. In the end, I needed to find the culture that best suited me from a flex standpoint, allowing me to succeed as a manager, fairly and equitably.
Today, I consult for many business professionals who work a range of flexible hours, which is increasingly the norm. Were I ever to return to a traditional workplace setting, I would certainly feel more empowered to better manage my team’s and my own expectations of flex, within corporate policy, going so far as to advocate for change if necessary.
And while morning people still tend to rule the roost, my ultimate advice for managers is to serve and protect those that need you morning, noon and night, yet not so much that you stop being able to serve and protect yourself.