The adoption of New Ways of Working has given us a lexicon of terms: Homeworking, Mobile and Remote Working, Smart Working, Agile Working and the latest term is the Digital Workplace. These terms have emerged from a journey in which organisations have adopted new workstyles. Technology has been a key enabler for the adoption of new ways of working.Each approach has promised new benefits but often the reality of their implementation has not always provided the hoped for gains.
There remains much confusion in the terms used for new ways of working and limited recognition of the benefits of to be gained from their adoption. It is the concepts, benefits, and requirements that these new ways of working have introduced that are important not the labels, that are often carelessly applied. The key factors are increasing choices in when, where and how people can work.
The Ways Working Progression model seeks to provide a way of assessing how organisations are progressing in the adoption of new ways of working. The model summarises the development with an indication of when the ways of working were introduced. The stages in the model also reflect the chronology in the development of technologies that have enabled new ways of working have been adopted. Changes in management styles that are required to support these new ways of working are also indicated.
The Ways of Working Porgression Model © John Eary 2017
Stage 0: Traditional Office Working
The office has been the traditional working environment predates the 20th century with The fixed location and time periods (as Dolly Parton sings “folks on the job from 9 to 5”) for these work activities of the traditional office model offers certainty for both employers and employees. In the 1960 partitions were removed to create open plan offices but work patterns remained the same
Technologies needed for traditional office based working are now well established. Typically each office worker is assigned a designated desk on which a personal computer is permanently placed connected to a local area networked to other PCs so that emails can be sent and received and line of business applications can be accessed. Security is relatively straightforward as most data and systems were contained within the perimeter of the building.
Managers who like to manage by walking about can feel they are in control as their staff are under their watchful eye. Significantly the emphasis is on time spent in the office (working or not) while the quantity and quality of outputs are typically not formally measured.
Meetings can be held at short notice as staff, who are not on leave or ill, are already on site. However to accommodate impromptu meetings, a significant part of the office accommodation needs to be dedicated to meeting rooms even if their utilisation is low.
There is little incentive for process improvement as many costs are fixed. Where there are changes new processes are likely to be closely prescribed with little scope for employees’ discretion in decision making. The traditional office workstyle suits employees who find routine comforting and enjoy the daily contact and support of their colleagues.
So there’s a lot to like about traditional office based working and this workstyle is still very prevalent. However it comes at a price, in accommodation costs for the employer, and commuting costs for the employee.
The first variation from the traditional office model occurred in 1971 with the invention of flex(i)time. This introduced the concept of ‘core time’ around which staff could choose when they started work and when they would finish to fulfil there contracted hours. Some schemes also enable staff to accumulate credits for extra time worked and take these as additional holiday. There is little change in workstyle apart from managers having to accept that not all staff will be present in the office throughout the normal working day. As work activities only take place in the office there is no need to change technology or processes.
The main requirements of this workstyle are the need for a flexitime policy so management and staff are aware of the rules of the scheme and a mechanism for recording time worked, which may be software application or a more informal signing in system.
Stage 1: Activity Based Working
Activity Based Working has been with us since the 1980s although a number of organisations are still discovering it. Activity Based Working is a concept which recognises that through the course of any day, people engage in many different work activities and they need different types of work settings to accommodate these activities. Rather than forcing employees to undertake all their work at one worksetting, such as a fixed desk Activity Based Working provides a variety of workspaces, to enable employees to undertake a range of distinct tasks in a more productive and enjoyable way.
Activity Based Working provides a variety of predetermined activity areas, or workspaces, to enable employees to choose the most suitable location to undertake a range of distinct tasks focused work to impromptu and informal meetings or more formal meetings. Quiet areas for reflective activities such as report writing and stimulating areas that inspire and support creative activities. Administrative activities can still be conducted at a desk.
Office based works activities
Office-based Activity Based Working makes few technological demands other than a projector or smart board to enable a participant to show a presentation or electronic document to colleagues on a screen.
Operational processes will be largely unchanged. Management by exception may be chosen as a management style as staff are not always visible to their manager.
Stage 2: Flexible Working
The first change in work location for office-based staff was allowing staff to work at home. In the UK in 2003, the Government introduced legislation that gave parents the right to request a flexible working arrangement from their employer and this right has been extended to all employees in 2014. When granted, Flexible Working allows employees to chose variations in when they work e.g. changes to their working day, or changes in their working week including part time working, compressed hours (i.e. working the same hours in fewer days) etc.
Working at home for part of their contracted working hours, as opposed to full time home-based working, has been a commonly requested flexible working arrangement. However, as well as these formal requests there are often more informal arrangements between managers and staff who may bypass the HR department. There are also ‘Day Extenders’ – managers and staff who do a ‘full day’s work’ in the office but also work at home in the evenings and/or weekends e.g.to catch up on emails or finish off a report.
While partial homeworking is normally an adjunct to the traditional office routine with little perturbation to processes, homeworking has additional technology requirements. Early connections over ISDN were often painfully slow but the increasing speeds of domestic broadband has put homeworkers at a much less disadvantage than their office based colleagues. And Wi-Fi has enabled device to be used in different rooms providing health and safety considerations are met. At a minimum all staff working at home will require external email access. Many homeworkers will need equipment to access office systems. This equipment could be a corporately owned laptop or the employee’s personal PC ‘thin client’ software installed on it using the employee’s broadband service.
Managers need to adapt their style to accommodate homeworking. They should ensure that home working staff are not excluded e.g. by arranging meetings at times when homeworking staff can visit the office. As with Activity Based Working, management by exception is often practised.
Stage 3: Mobile Working
Many staff, such as inspectors, service engineers and sales staff need to work “in the field” i.e. make regular visits to sites away from the office. The introduction of fast mobile data networks, 3G cellular networks from around 2005, followed by 4G networks, have been the key technological developments for mobile working, As has been the proliferation of mobile devices - laptops, tablets and smart phones and the coming wearable devices. These devices are used for email and messaging and access to line of business applications, for applications that are feasible for mobile working.
Mobile technology allows mobile workers to keep in touch with management, colleagues and clients. Mobile working also provides an opportunity to reduce travel time and costs through enabling mobile workers to access the information while they are ‘on the job’ so they can go straight to their first appointment from home rather than divert to the office. Similarly technology can enable mobile workers to file reports remotely without returning to the office saving further travel time and enabling greater efficiencies. These savings in time can increase productivity through additional visits and/or reduced travel as well contribute to the organisation’s green agenda wher overall travel is reduced.
Many of these activities are scheduled and a management by results style is common with targets such as the number of completed visits per day. However some mobile workers may enjoy some discretion in the decisions they make in the field.
Stage 4: Agile Working
Agile Working (called Smart Working by the UK Civil Service to differentiate it from Agile software development) differs from Flexible Working in that it is transformational i.e. based on fundamental changes in working practices rather then incremental improvements. With Agile Working performance is explicitly based on objective measures of output, and managers need to allow flexibility in how these outputs are achieved. Similarly Agile Workers can choose when and where they carry out their work activities provided they fulfil the business need.
In Flexible Working (Stage 2) organisations react to staff requests for homeworking. When organisations adopt Agile Working staff are proactively encouraged to work at home for part of the working week. When staff are working in the office they are likely to be required to work at shared desks, often called ‘hot desks’. Hotdesking breaks the link between individual staff and designated desks and therefore increases the flexibility of accommodation. Given that fewer staff are working in the office, fewer desks, and other physical facilities, are needed so there is consequential reduction in office space required. This reduced requirement can be realised as a cash benefit from the sale, or rental, of surplus accommodation. This benefit is often the key driver for many Agile Working initiatives.
The other benefit promised by Agile/Smart Working is summed up by the slogan, ‘work smarter not harder’. To realise this benefit existing procedures need to be examined to identify opportunities for business process improvement. Smart Working assumes that a proportion of the work activities will routinely be carried out away from the office. The organisation can continue to provide its services at appropriate and acceptable levels when staff are working away from the office.
To realise the benefits of true Agile Working managers will need to engender a significant change of culture delegating some decisions and ensuring that staff can work in a more autonomous way. A light touch management style is needed based on results measured on agreed targets. Agile Workers need to be empowered to make their own decisions within their competence and to react quickly and appropriately regardless of where they are situated. Agile Working cannot be dictated by policy but with education and involvement a voluntary commitment to Agile Working can be elicited from employees.
A wireless network supporting the hot desks and meeting rooms offers convenience and flexibility although the increase vulnerability to external eavesdropping will need to be addressed.
Stage 5: Digital Workplace/Workspace
The Digital Workplace
The term the “Digital Workplace” was introduced around 2013. The concept of the “digital workplace” is still emerging but is now gaining traction. So what exactly is the “digital workplace”? At its least ambitious definition it is a synonym for a portal or an intranet. However Gartner describes it as “an ongoing, deliberate approach to delivering a more consumer-like computing environment that is better able to facilitate innovative and flexible working practices.” This definition legitimises the Digital Workplace as an enabler of a new way of working. Put simply, it is a unified workplace where technology based solutions and tools allow employees to be productive, creative and engaged at any time, in any place
An effective Digital Workplace will have a symbiotic effect of providing an enjoyable place for employees to work while providing productivity gains for organisations that employ them. Digital Workplaces provides employees with the freedom and flexibility to do their jobs in the best way available, wherever they are working. Furthermore as David Dunbar states “It should to be a pleasant place to work allow people to perform at their best while maintaining the work/life balance. The digital workplace, like a good physical one, should be somewhere that you want to work.”
The Digital Workspace is also driving a change in the management of employees. While Agile Working has focused on the autonomy of the individual, the Digital Workplace reflects today’s social media based world and is focussed on connecting people together electronically enabling virtual collaborations. Management responsibility is being devolved to teams, (as it is in Agile software development) breaking down the hierarchies that have been existed since traditional office working.
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.