10 December 2009
Instead of chaining workers to the desk and keeping a stern watchful eye on them, employers need to give them the freedom to organise their work their own way, paying attention to little but what they produce.
The flexible work philosophy is so familiar that it has almost taken on the status of a truism. Everyone knows that work is a thing you do, not a place you go to. In theory, at least. But even if the argument has been won and everyone acknowledges how much sense it makes, the awkward anomaly persists that the flexible workplace is rare. The majority of the workforce is still shivering on the train platform, sweating on the train and suffering the ill effects of vending machine coffee.
The partisans of the cause were out in force at Worktech 09, hosted again by the British Library; in fact, there was hardly a dissenting voice. Headline speaker and philosopher-at-large Alain de Botton was on message, answering a question about the respective merits of the doing and going concepts of work: In the absence of knowing what they [managers] want from staff, they just want them hanging around the place. Because they don't know what result they want, there is this desire for control.
De Botton believes the answer is for managers to think harder about what they want out of their staff, then to monitor them to see if they are delivering it. If de Botton were a manager, he would tell his people: Do anything you like, go anywhere you want : I don't care. But if you don't do the work you get sacked. Babysitting the workforce, making them sign in and out and account for their whereabouts between the hours of 9am and 5pm makes no sense in a knowledge economy.
Mark Dixon, chief executive of managed office space provider Regus, can see no more sense in it than de Botton. The reason people are commuting is, in general, because their company has told them that they have to come into the office. Dixon believes that flexible working arrangements increase productivity and reduce workspace overheads. Combine this with employee demand for control over their whereabouts and work patterns, and the financial and human cost of lengthy commutes, and a revolution is just waiting to be triggered.
In Dixon's view, the recession is that trigger. The catalyst of this recession is changing everything, forcing companies to put these ideas. which have been around for five or 10 years, into practice.
Regus is just one of the companies that has been given the recessionary shot in the arm it needed to make the most of the new technologies and work models available. Business travel within the multinational organisation is almost a thing of the past; teleconferencing is as widely used as email.
Workplace consultant Erik Veldhoen, perhaps the day's most passionate advocate of flexible working, stressed that information is independent of time and place, telling delegates that ours is a world of 100 per cent connectivity. In such a world, the gap that opened up between work and home life during the industrial revolution can finally be closed. In fact, the technological revolution means that traditional workplace culture will be unable to sustain itself, he insists: It's revolution time.
Talk of revolution was in the air at the British Library. As well as Veldhoen sounding the warning, Philip Vanhoute, MD EMEA of Plantronics, invoked the spirit of 1989 in talking about the greater freedom offered by today's telecoms. He told the conference floor: 'The Berlin Wall of the working world is coming down.'
Why then is flexible working still something that is mostly talked about at conferences? If it was plausible to point the finger at technological shortcomings five years ago, the case is now all but impossible to make. Worktech was this year a compelling demonstration of the maturity of the available technology. It isn't as if the technology is lacking either. Whatever the reason, technological shortcomings aren't behind the somewhat limited take-up. Cloud networks, IP telephony, video-conferencing, the humble BlackBerry, the humdrum laptop: the boffins have equipped business with an array of technology to support imaginative ways of working. If companies have the will to inaugurate new ways of working, there are products to enable that change.
So what is the answer? Various theories were on offer. De Botton attributed it to a certain vagueness in most managers' ideas of what they were looking for from their workforce. Annie Leeson, a researcher working with Plantronics, suggested the reluctance of conservative managers was to blame.
Dixon highlighted a corporate inertia: It is hard for companies to change their methods of operation because they've been ingrained over generations. The key to overcoming this is publicity, Dixon argued. Success stories have to get the message out about what they have achieved. Flexible working needs its poster boys (and girls).
And there were a number of them in evidence at Worktech. Case studies from the BBC, Australian investment bank Macquarrie and telecoms giant Nokia were all prospectuses for what can be achieved with ambitious flexible working programmes, with cost and space efficiencies possible, as well as improved staff retention and increased productivity.
Clive Wilkinson of Australian investment bank Macquarrie called the organisation's new workplace project at its HQ a transformation rather than a real estate or an IT project.
The success stories are out there and they are clearly working hard to communicate what they have achieved and to incorporate flexible working into their brands. If it is just a case of inertia working in tandem with ignorance, then as the message spreads we should see flexible working make further inroads, expanding its power beyond the beach head of three per cent of the working population it currently has. If not, Worktech events to come will be kept busy asking why.