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What are they up to?

Have you ever noticed that your preconceptions can affect your judgement? Let’s test that theory out.

Imagine, if you will, that there are two hypothetical engineers. The first, who we will call Alice, is a total superstar in your department. Everyone thinks that she is brilliant. If you had to get something critical done you would give it to her. In fact, you’re not sure how you’d get things done without her around! The second engineer, who we will call Bob, is the opposite of Alice. He hasn’t been performing well recently, and has been finding it hard to produce quality work on time. He’s going through a performance improvement plan as we speak, and it’s uncertain as to whether he’s going to pass it. It doesn’t seem like his heart is in it any more.

Given what we know about Alice and Bob, what would you think that they were up to if:

  • You couldn’t find them at their desk
  • They were working from home
  • They were getting in at 11AM
  • They were leaving early twice a week?

Would you assume that if you couldn’t find Alice it was because she was attending to something very important, or in a meeting? What about Bob? Would you assume he had slept in? If Alice was working from home, would you assume that she is trying her best to juggle life commitments or that she really wants to concentrate on a critical piece of work? If the same situation occurred for Bob, would you assume that he’s slacking off instead?

These preconceptions won’t be coming from you alone. They’ll be coming from others in the office too, regardless of their fairness.

As a manager, you’ll be responsible for the flexibility that you give your staff. How can you make sure that you give that flexibility fairly in a way that doesn’t undermine the respect that people have for you?


Let’s talk about chits. What are they?

By definition, a chit is a short official note, typically recording something which is owed. For example, a chit could be written by a guest taking something from the drinks cabinet; a promise that it’ll get paid back later. In the UK I’ve been more privy to the term IOU rather than chit.

If you were the owner of the drinks cabinet, you may feel that if the person leaving the chits was your best friend, then you would be totally fine with them having them stack up continually over time; you’re 100% sure that they’ll pay you back as you trust them. If the chits were left by a stranger, especially by one who you didn’t trust, then you probably wouldn’t be comfortable with them taking anything at all in the first place.

You can apply this same logic to flexibility that you give your employees. The more trustworthy and high-performing the employee, the more chits that they are allowed to have. This gives your best staff the most allowances, and sends a message that this flexibility is something that is earned and not a right. Your staff that get complete flexibility in when to work from home, when to arrive and leave, and how to structure their time should be the ones that set a great example in the output and impact of their work. Others should strive to emulate their behavior, thus earning similar levels of flexibility for themselves.

What sort of chits can you give?

What kinds of things could you be offering flexibility over? This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should illustrate where you can reward consistent good performance with extra allowances and relaxed constraints.

  • Working from home: Your best performers should be able to work from home whenever they need. This can be for life reasons such as needing to accept a delivery or attend a school play, or it could be that they want to create a day free of interruptions to concentrate on work before a deadline. Perhaps they generate their best creative ideas when in solitude. To begin with, you should establish a way for your staff to request working from home arrangements with a specified reason, but with time for your top performers should be able to do it without needing to ask ahead of time. Now, depending on a person’s role, working from home may or may not be particularly impactful. A senior manager being at home for one day may make little difference other than them not being around for impromptu interactions, but a senior engineer with a junior team can have a greater negative effect by not being there to mentor them.
  • Flexibility over start and end times: Often an employee’s contract will define standard working hours, but with time your best performers should be able to come in and go home on their own schedule, within reasonable bounds. Those that are the highest performing will most probably be working hard all day anyway, so if they’re tired of thinking of complex problems by the late afternoon, why not have them go home and recharge?
  • Minimal notice for time off: Your best staff are intrinsically motivated to do their best, so if they request tomorrow off, you should be a position to trust them and just let them do it. They’ll juggle their work commitments and communication with others as well as they have previously demonstrated to you.
  • Choices over upcoming projects: This is a fun one. Your best performing staff can have a say on the projects that they want to work on throughout the year. After all, you know that they’re going to make them a success, right? This leads to better performance through alignment of their passions and interests to their work for you.

Being open and honest about chits

Your system of chits shouldn’t be something that you should have written down and available for all to see. This is a system that you should negotiate one-to-one with your employees. However, you should let your employees know that with time, as they increase their tenure and impact, you, and therefore the company, can begin to be much more flexible with their working arrangements.

Chits should not encourage entitlement. You need to be clear that the way that you offer flexibility as a manager is not because of unprofessional favoritism; it’s another part of the benefits package for top performers. Those that you offer the most flexibility to should clearly be your best staff, otherwise you are open to arguments from others that they should be allowed to work from home three days a week simply because Alice does as well.

An approach to implementing chits when hiring new staff, or having new staff report to you, is to explicitly outline how this system works. You can state that you can indeed be extremely flexible with working arrangements as long as there is clear proof that the particular member of staff is delivering to a high standard. To begin with, be clear that you would like requests for additional flexibility to be asked for on a case-by-case basis with an explicit reason for doing so. You can then explain that with time, and with demonstrable good performance and trust, you will relax your grip on requests and allow higher levels of autonomy. Each of your staff acts as a role model for others in the department and you want to make sure that those with maximum chits are unquestionably your best, and that everyone can clearly see the correlation between performance and allowances.

In summary

You should openly encourage your staff to have as much flexibility over their work-life balance as possible, but be firm that the most flexibility stems from the best performance. Those that have too much flexibility without having earned it can set the wrong example for others that they work with.

Be fair and firm and let performance determine chits. It drives the right behavior.


  1. Benji says

    I disagree with the chit system as outlined here for 3 reasons:

    Firstly it is not really possible to differentiate it from favouritism, particularly from the perspective of other team members. Openly treating certain members of staff as special is extremely bad for the team dynamic and very likely to provoke jealousy, apathy and a sense of resentment towards the manager and any special employees. The trade-off of having one staff member feeling more privileged at work is not worth any potential damage to the team’s sense of cohesion and unity.

    Secondly it is open to abuse. You’ve given a list of chits you can give, like making allowances for arriving late and leaving early, but how far does this go? What if a high-performer acts inappropriately towards another member of staff who is not a high-performer? Former Uber employees have famously said that deeply inappropriate behaviour went completely unchecked there precisely because the individuals in question were “high-performers”.

    Thirdly it often isn’t the engineers who contribute most value that are labelled high-performers. We all know about the myth of the “rockstar developer” who projects an image of being smarter than everyone else and writes code that is convoluted, esoteric and difficult to understand or maintain. We also all know about the employee who sucks up to the boss and develops a special relationship with them. In my experience not all of the engineers who have been known to management as high-performers are so highly esteemed within the team they work. Obviously if there is a discrepancy between how the manager sees an employee and how the rest of the team sees them then any special treatment will be very harmful to the team as a whole.

    Personally I feel the culture around high-performers getting special treatment isn’t good for the business or the people in it and can end up quite toxic. I feel all staff should be given the same consideration when it comes to managing how they conduct themselves in the workplace and granting plenty of flexibility here is extremely beneficial for everyone. Any performance or behaviour problems should of course be dealt with in the usual way, but it is definitely a good thing to know that you haven’t caused any issues through employees perceiving you as behaving unfairly.

    • Hello! Thanks for writing the detailed comment. It’s fine to disagree; after all, these articles are only opinion! I’ve numbered some responses to line up with your paragraphs in your response:

      1. I agree that it is favoritism. However, salary and other compensation (bonuses, equity, etc.) work the same way. The most skilled people who bring the most to the business get the best rewards and flexibility. It’s not a ranking system however: most teams I’ve worked with have all been good, so everyone gets the flexibility they need.

      2. True. However, I don’t see the main point in your example about acting inappropriately: high-performing staff who act like that may be talented but I would have a serious problem with their behavior, so I would not call them high-performing. Being nice, helpful and kind is just as important as writing good code. You’re not a team player without camaraderie. What went on at Uber was nasty and people like that have no place in my teams.

      3. I understand your point, but isn’t the behavior you mention actually poor performance? They’re writing convoluted, esoteric and difficult to understand code – so that’s bad code in my eyes. And the sucking up behavior – I would hope that a skilled manager would be able to see through it and be able to judge it as manipulative and call it out. A manager should regularly be getting peer feedback on their staff that should be able to highlight issues like these.

  2. Benji says

    Thanks for answering my detailed response!

    With point 1 you are quite right that increased flexibility is not all that different from other rewards like salary, perhaps it is different though in that it is more overt and not contractually defined. I think you would have to ensure everyone on the team was happy with the arrangement before going ahead with it. Personally I wouldn’t feel that comfortable knowing I can come into work whenever I like but the person I sit next to gets told off if they are late, but others might feel differently.

    With points 2 and 3 I think it just comes down to whether you have a good manager. I worry that having a system that allows such overtly different treatment could be quite damaging in the wrong hands, but maybe it wouldn’t make a big difference in the grand scheme of things.

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