Marcie Hopkins, U of U Health.
Find the Right Words to Communicate Flexibility
Our work lives are changing as some of our homes once again become schools. The Effective Communicator reached out to HR experts Christian Sherwood and Rosemary Norton for advice about how managers can talk with their teams about being flexible with where, how, and when we work.

Dear Effective Communicator,

A big challenge my team is facing with the pandemic is unknown schedules and at-home needs that arise unexpectedly (thank you, Omicron). I’m not sure how to talk to my team about the need to think more flexibly about how and where we work. What should I say? 

In Flux in Farmington

Dear In Flux,


ur work conditions have changed dramatically. This is not an understatement. From telehealth visits to virtual meeting spaces, we’re learning there is more to learn about how and where we work.

You’ve landed on the right word to describe the positive, optimistic approach to these work conditions: flexibility. But in a world managed by strict routines and rigid hierarchies, flexibility can be hard to come by. Some of us even lean into our rigid selves as a way of coping.

Complexity demands flexibility

It’s helpful to think about how the pandemic has accelerated the change from measuring activities (being in a seat or office, checking certain boxes) to measuring outcomes. This is one of the hallmarks of working and living in a complex adaptive system, which the pandemic has accelerated.

A recent study published in Harvard Business Review, which surveyed managers in 24 countries about remote working, showed that many managers across the world are struggling right now. It is impacting productivity and wellness, up-and-down the corporate hierarchy.

How managers communicate in this environment is key. Christian Sherwood, director of communication and recognition, says it is about a lot more than simple communication. “There’s a lot of listening and planning to make this communication effective,” she said. “As the leader of a team, whether you are a supervisor, manager, director, or executive, your team looks to you for direction.”

Make a plan

Christian suggests making a clear plan by first understanding what you can offer in the first place. Just how flexible can you be given the circumstances? After you’ve made a plan, give clear, actionable direction that, if going through multiple leadership layers, can be passed down.

That last part is key. Anyone who has ever played the telephone game knows that messages are often distorted in the re-telling. Clear, precise messages—emails that can be forwarded, handouts that can be posted, or large meetings where employees can hear directly from senior leaders—are most effective.

If you’re not sure what the direction is, particularly when it comes to flex scheduling or leaves of absence, then you should consult with your assigned HR contact, according to Rosemary Norton, HR compliance supervisor.

Being inflexible may not even be an option for you right now. “If your team is working remote, unless there is a meaningful, practical reason, please do not return to the office at this time,” Rosemary said. “We want to ensure our staff stay healthy and our supplies are reserved for areas that don’t have a choice to work offsite.”

Remember empathy, equity, and input

Rosemary and Christian both emphasized the need to be empathetic, fair, and gracious when communicating effectively about flexibility in the workplace.

Ask for input. Health care workers are solution-oriented. Ask your direct reports for suggestions to help you make a plan. Make it clear that you are willing to discuss and will help find a solution.

Demonstrate empathy for your team. Everyone is facing new and unique situations. Even staff without school-age kids have difficult decisions to make. Don’t assume you know and understand everyone’s unique needs unless they have told you them.

Be equitable. If you’re offering flexibility in work hours or switching up shifts, make the offer to all staff members.

These changes may be temporary, or they could last much longer. We don’t know. Embracing uncertainty will help your teams do likewise. You’ll find opportunities to grow together, and our patients and our work places will be better for it.  

You got this,

The Effective Communicator


Christian Sherwood

Chief Human Resources Officer, University of Utah Health

Rosemary Norton

Compliance Supervisor, Human Resources, University of Utah Health

Isaac Holyoak

Editor-at-Large, Accelerate U of U Health; Vice President Strategic Communications, CleanSpark

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