How to Be More Flexible At Work

One of the keys to workplace success is an overlooked personal quality: flexibility. The more flexible you are, the more easily you’ll be able to overcome some of the most common workplace challenges, and the more responsive you’ll be to unusual problems that arise. While you might not think of yourself as a very flexible person, don’t worry—there are strategies you can use to achieve greater flexibility at work.

The Value of Flexibility

Flexibility helps you in several ways:

  • Stress reduction. Remaining flexible helps you manage stress. If you’re rigidly adhering to an idea, you’re more likely to fight over it, and more likely to feel upset if it doesn’t work out. If you’re open to many different ideas, you won’t feel nearly as stressed—and you’ll be more productive as a result.
  • Conflict resolution and compromise. Flexibility is crucial for conflict resolution. If you get into an argument or disagreement with someone, you won’t make any progress unless you’re willing to bend. That doesn’t mean giving up or admitting defeat, but it does mean remaining open to many different solutions and potential compromises.
  • Learning new information. There’s always something new to learn. If you’re flexible, you recognize this, and you’re more than willing to update an outdated philosophy or approach to accommodate this new information.
  • Adapting to new circumstances. Similarly, being flexible helps you dynamically adapt to new circumstances. If there’s a sudden influx of work to do, you can rearrange your workday and/or delegate to ensure it gets done.

It’s easiest to see the value of flexibility by closely examining a strategy that’s founded on flexibility: agile software development. You don’t have to be a software developer to understand the basic principles of agile development; the basic idea is to develop software iteratively, with a minimalistic foundation. Over time, you’ll test, collect feedback, and gradually perfect your software, responding to issues as they arise.

This is far superior to the opposing “waterfall” method, in which you try to capture the full scope of a project initially and develop it from start to finish. Waterfall is problematic because it typically leads to roadblocks that you didn’t anticipate, and because it leaves little room for adding new features or making changes later.

How to Be More Flexible

Now for the important question: how can you learn to be more flexible at work?

  • Avoid planning too rigidly. First, when making plans, avoid planning things too rigidly. If you’re making a schedule for your day, don’t plan out every minute, or even every hour. Leave some wiggle room so you can make adjustments in the future, and don’t be surprised if your intended schedule gets shaken up. If you’re making a new product, keep your prototype open to new features and upgrades.
  • Understand that change is inevitable. Always keep in mind that change is inevitable. No matter how consistent things seem to be, whether it’s a formula for your workday or a pattern for your industry, you should expect things to change eventually. The only question is when. It’s much easier to adapt when the change doesn’t take you by surprise.
  • Accept a range of results. When pushing for a change or trying to accomplish something, be prepared to accept a range of results. For example, if you’re asking for a salary raise, you may have an ideal target, but you should also be prepared to accept a lower, reasonable offer.
  • Avoid the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that keeps us stubbornly clinging to ideas and efforts that are no longer paying off for us. If you’ve spent dozens of hours on a project, only to discover that it’s unprofitable, you might keep working on it just because it’s cost you so much already. You have to recognize when this bias creeps up on you, and try to root it out. There’s nothing wrong with abandoning something that isn’t working in your favor—even if you’ve already spent a lot of time or money on it.

When Not to Be Flexible

Of course, like any workplace strategy, flexibility isn’t something that’s useful 100 percent of the time. There are times when it pays to be committed, or even stubborn. For example, if you’re negotiating for a pay raise, it may be in your favor to stick to your guns after receiving a low counteroffer. Or if you’re arguing with someone who’s recommending going against best practices, you can remain steadfast.

For the most part, flexibility is an important quality that can reduce your stress and keep you adaptable in the face of changing circumstances. Work proactively to remain as flexible as possible in your work environment, and encourage the people around you to do the same.