The HR Juggler

Flexibly Yours

Posted on: August 4, 2014

Back in December, I tweeted this photo of my empty filing cabinet…

filing2

Much the same as any other filing cabinet, you might think….and of course you’d be right! The difference is though, that this empty filing cabinet symbolised a bold move to a wholly different way of working and the start of a genuinely exciting journey for my workplace, the creation of a truly digital hub to coincide with our office move. I am belatedly making good on my promise to blog about it.

The premise was simple. A small number of functions were designated as ‘fixed desk’ workers, for example the telesales teams, who clearly benefit from being office based in a competitive, encouraging environment and enjoy doing so and they moved ‘as is’ with no issues. Other than these functions, anyone could become a homeworker if they wished to and we had around 80 individuals opting to take this choice. All other staff, became by default flexible workers, meaning that they could work from home, from the new office or another alternative location, whenever they chose to, with no requirement of management approval or agreeing working patterns. We very deliberately chose to trust people and treat them as the adults they are.

Let me tell you first what there wasn’t: there were no weighty policies, there was simply a principles document, outlining what I have described above. There was no requirement for management and HR approval or consent, for either homeworking or flexible working: there were simply some basic technical requirements to become a homeworker, for example a minimum broadband speed and health and safety assessment and a clear message that all staff were able to work flexibly. There were no designated offices for anyone at all in the new building, there were no specific desks for individuals, there were no pedestals at the desks, no vast storage capabilities available on site.

But there was investment: investment in laptops, so that staff could work flexibly in the way that we had promised them and investment in digital archiving and online tools to help people communicate more effectively and share documents as needed. There was a system put in place so that people could book desks online, up to a week in advance and plenty of meeting rooms that could be booked and informal meeting spaces, for more ad hoc conversations. There were lockers made available for personal belongings and broad ‘neighbourhoods’ created so that teams could choose to sit with others in their division if they wished to. There was a simple process to access a net payment for those individuals setting themselves up as homeworkers. There was lots of training for managers and for staff on why we were implementing these changes, what the new environment would be like, how to manage in periods of change and uncertainty, what the new parameters were. There was a huge amount of hard work, commitment, enthusiasm and willingness to change, to give something different a try, to trust, to empower.

There have been bumps along the way on this journey, of course there have. But actually, those bumps have been surprisingly few and far between. We have been in our new digital hub and operating our new way of working for over six months now, and the feedback from staff has been overwhelmingly positive. The open plan environment has energised people, the opportunity to work in a truly flexible way and to be trusted is highly prized and valued. The hard and fast metrics will become clearer over time but so far turnover is down, productivity remains good and people are far happier. For us, it is the first step, but undoubtedly a hugely significant one, which is likely to change how we perceive the working environment and our approach to flexible working for good.

Businesses talk a lot about making changes to how people work, to empowering and trusting staff. It has been an absolute pleasure and a privilege to be part of the team that has led the transformation to a completely different way of working and challenged the existing norms. Why is it that we assume people are working harder if we can see them sitting at a desk? That if they are empowered to manage their own time, they will skive off? Do we really need to resort to command and control to get the best out of people? And if we can change how people work and interact with each other, what else can we do and let go of to make work even better? Now that really is food for thought!

Questions? Comments? I’d love to know what you think :).

13 Responses to "Flexibly Yours"

Great to read about your journey, Alison. It’s encouraging to know change of this nature can and does happen well. Too many times do we hear about those cynics getting in the way of progress.

Thanks Sukh, glad to hear the post encourages and inspires a little. The lovely thing is that our business is full of cynics, who have wholeheartedly got behind the change (once they realised that there really wasn’t a catch to it!)

Lovely blogpost Alison. It just makes sense as employees are used to working this way as a norm. “We very deliberately chose to trust people and treat them as the adults they are.” Don’t all employees work better when there is a culture of trust, transparency and honesty?

Love it.

We definitely all do! Thanks for stopping by to comment

Amazing story, very inspiring and would be great to get an update a little further down the line, although it sounds like everyone has adapted quickly and it is becoming the new norm. Very heartening to read a larger company taking a real leap of faith and letting go of the ‘traditional’ management controls (which have been outdated for a long time anyway). Hope it encourages more to do the same …

Thanks Margaret. It was a great experience to make such a total change to our working arrangements. I hope too that it becomes the norm for many more organisations.

Great job design is partly about removing obstacles to getting things done – an excellent example.

So….

I’m sitting in an airport at 22:00, my flight is delayed (again). The queue has formed to board but my chair (I never understand why we queue and jostle to get on planes with allocated seats) faces away from the queue. As I type my body is twisted so I can see the queue… of people…

People drive me nuts, but I like being with and near them. I can’t work at home for more than a day or two at a time.  I commute 1:50 each way 19 days  out of 20.  I could elect not to do so.

While I waited for the damn plane, I called an old friend. He has worked at home for over 15 years and goes in once per year (if he has to).

Sitting in my contorted position I took a call from a fab marketing colleague who is a Kiwi based in NY. She makes me smile from any distance.

Anyway, did your company’s project confuse what can be done with what actually works best for all people?  

Could you get highly collaborative and innovative things done through the accident of just bumping into people?

As ever, you made me think 🙂

Ah….it’s been a while! I would imagine that you would fall into the category of someone whose preference would be to continue to work full-time in the office. That’s fine – there remain plenty of people who do that 5 days a week. They simply need to book a desk in advance each week, which isn’t a huge ask.

The new office actually facilitates bumping into people more, funnily enough, because it’s entirely open plan and people are all on a single floor. Some of the old barriers simply aren’t there and far more adhoc conversations tend to take place.

You ask whether the project confused what can be done with what works best for all people and I would refute that. The key here is choice – the vast majority of people choose to work flexibly in a pattern that suits them. No one is forced to work in a way they do not wish to.

Given how much you travel, it does to me seem a little outdated that you have a desk or office (possibly several?) which is specifically ‘yours’. But perspective and preference is of course, everything 😉

[…] this about organising homeworkers the other day. Lots of their teams are virtual things which is different to coming to work every […]

Great story. I think more businesses could benefit from this way of working now. I’d love to here how things go over the next while with this new way of working bedding in.
I would be interested to find out if this has helped increase employee engagement or if it has helped reduce leavers.

Great story. I would love to hear more about how this has bedded in over time and if it had helped increase employee engagement and reduce leavers.

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