The adoption of New Ways of Working has given us a lexicon of terms: Homeworking, Mobile and Remote Working, Smart Working. The latest term is Agile Working. These terms have emerged in a journey as organisations have adopted new workstyles. Each new approach has promised new benefits but often the reality of their implementation has failed to meet the hoped for gains. My views are drawn from my experience from managing some twenty plus flexible working assignments for a wide range of organisations.
My involvement started back in the year 2000 when the government launched the Work-Life Balance Challenge Fund to encourage employers to recognise the personal and family commitments of their staff. By doing so, it was argued, staff would be more productive. Despite the altruistic goals I, like others, found little tangible evidence of productivity gains. However it did foster a new attitude in the workplace that was more sympathetic to staff who had family and other care responsibilities. This new approach was re-enforced in an Employment Act which allowed staff with caring responsibilities to request flexibility in work – most commonly the ability to work at home. At this time Flexible Working was skewed towards the life side of the work-life balance and without demonstrable productivity gains the benefit to employers was reputational – they could be recognised as good employers or ‘Employers of Choice’.
Homeworking became a familiar phrase in most cases referring to staff who spent two or three days a week at home and the rest of the time in the office. Although there was some initial resentment by those whose circumstances did not afford this flexibility this pattern is now quite well established. There remains a challenge for managers who feel more comfortable seeing staff sat at their office desks (even if they may in reality be booking their next holiday on the web).
Technology and Flexible Working
Technology has, of course, been an enabler for new ways of working. Electronic document management systems supported homeworking by removing the need to cart paper to and from the office with the security risks of doing so. The widespread adoption of 3G phone networks and public Wi-Fi facilities gave rise to the Remote Working workstyle. This promised the Martini benefits of “anytime, anyplace anywhere” in theory freeing people from working in the office and at home so. The first reality check was while this was fine for those whose main requirement was email as the BlackBerry was all the technology they needed, for those that need access to systems low connection speeds meant that performance could be so slow as to be unusable. The second reality check was the realisation that freedom came at a price: the expectation that managers and colleagues could send emails, and expect you to reply, at any time of day.
Mobile Working is one form of Flexible Working
The adoption of lighter weight laptops and PDAs and then smart phones (I am talking of a time that was pre-tablet) enabled staff to collect information while in the field, this workstyle has become known as Mobile Working. Again this turned out to be a two-edged sword for staff. While the need to return to the office to enter information was removed, indeed you could go straight to your first appointment without the need to commute to the office: it also meant that the movements of the staff could be more controlled. This intrusion, and some technophobia, slowed the take up of Mobile Working but it has resulted in real productivity gains from more efficient use of staff time.
More recently the term Smart Working was coined offering the opportunity for staff to work smarter, not harder. In reality both central and local government have adopted Smart Working as a way of saving money from hard-pressed budgets. Savings have come from reducing office space by encouraging staff to work at home and providing hotdesks when staff are in the office. Real cash benefits are being achieved by the sale, or renting, of the accommodation no longer required. While many staff have accepted and welcome the opportunity to work at home, the implementation of hotdesking has been patchy and where good practice has not been adopted has become a source of staff resentment and in some cases demotivating.
Now we have Agile Working and it could be argued that this is what Smart Working should have been about, staff working smarter. It promises benefits that people are able to react quickly and appropriately regardless of where they are situated. We need to recognise that most organisations have undertaken Lean reviews and other business process improvements initiatives and many have embarked on more radical business transformation programmes. While benefits have been gained there is evidence that organisations feel they have been transformed and are now only making marginal improvements. Agile Working provides the opportunity to achieve new significant benefits in improved customer service and cost reductions. Today’s technology can deliver Agile Working but to fulfil its promise it is necessary to achieve a further culture change in ways of working. The lessons learned in the evolution of Flexible Working shows this is possible if you go about it in the right, and realistic, way.
Written by John Eary, Director of JEC Professional Services Ltd. I have a strong track record in advising organisations on new ways of working and exploiting IT effectively. My blog seeks to provoke thinking on the opportunities and challenges of new ways of working presented by technology.