The HR Juggler

Archive for the ‘Flexible Working’ Category

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 :).

 
Over the past few weeks, my work-life balance has shifted slightly in home’s favour, which has been lovely. Having time off from work and spending more time with my family has been fantastic. As you would expect, my children have been a huge part of this home time and most days I am struck by how the things that they are learning and the way that they interact with each other provide me with lots of opportunity for reflection for both home and work, which I wanted to share. So this summer, my homework lessons have been as follows –
  • Autonomy

Towards the end of our camping holiday, once of my daughters told me how much she had enjoyed being more independent and doing more things for herself whilst we had been away. Just little activities like going to the playground within the campsite on her own, doing small jobs and walking from the bathroom back to the tent on her own. She asked me about how she could be more independent within our home environment and between us we came up with some suggestions which we have been putting into practice since. My point is simply this; that we all love and need some degree of autonomy to feel valued and to create a sense of achievement, whatever age we are.

  • Delegation

Very easy to talk about, harder sometimes to do and maintain. I have found that getting my children to do things that I have  usually done for them generally takes many times longer (at least at first) and requires no small degree of patience on my part. I am determined to stick with it though and have been encouraging them to do a task for themself, checking it over once they confirm that they think it is done and then giving them feedback about what is right and what still needs to be improved. And then the hard bit (when you’re as impatient as I can sometimes be!) – giving them the opportunity to complete the rest of the activity and starting the whole feedback loop again. It’s actually working quite well and they are definitely improving and learning new skills already…and I know I am putting into practice something that I undoubtedly need to do more of at work.

  • Doing things that scare you moves you forwards

Swimming lessons have always been a challenge, given that my children hate getting their faces wet or splashed at all. Last week during their regular weekly lesson, the instructor encouraged all of the children individually to dip their heads completely under the water. I was amazed when she gained agreement from each of my daughters in turn that she would fully immerse them in the water and that both of them allowed her to do this. Not only this, but that they didn’t cry or wail afterwards…even though they did look a bit shocked at themselves and the whole experience! They trusted her, as I did; she understood their progress well enough to perceive that they were perhaps ready for a step forward in their development. And in doing something that they had been truly scared of, my daughters gained a new confidence and took a huge step forwards in their development.

  • Learning

Two lessons here really. The first is that when we stop learning, we can forget things very quickly – when one of my daughters told me after a couple of weeks of the school holiday that she couldn’t remember how to spell our surname, I realised quite why the teacher had asked the parents to continue with some reading, writing and number work over the holidays!

We all learn better when we are doing something in an enjoyable way and when there are rewards and recognition associated with it. I have been doing some mathletics work with both my children over the summer, essentially fun maths-based games and activities that you complete on the computer. For every set of ten questions a child completes, they earn credits which they can either save up or spend on ‘buying’ a wide range accessories for their online avatar. This, plus a number of other ingenious ways of providing reward and recognition within the work, is amazingly effective in increasing motivation and interest. Now I just need to work out how we can implement some of this in the workplace!

  • Feedback and praise

Feedback is fairly meaningless unless it is linked to a specific achievement. But having two children of the same age can make this quite tricky when they achieve things at different rates and particularly when one twin seems to be ahead of the other in many situations, albeit temporarily. When one of my daughters managed to swim backstroke on her own (with the aid of a float) for the first time, I really praised her….and then had to deal with the tears of my other daughter, who felt I was being unfair in praising her sister more than her. Cue much explanation and reassurance, more tears and finally a smile, when I promised I would be just as proud of her when she managed to do it (which she did the very next day!). 

As far as I can see, although it can be tough at times, we have to be honest about achievements, praise appropriately and specifically for them, but also make sure we give positive feedback for progress and effort across a wide range of different scenarios, so that everyone has the chance to be included in praise and recognition…we all need some positive feedback on the things that we are good at, at home or at work. 

  • The constant of leadership

Regardless of how relaxed we are over the holidays, how much fun we have and whether we are at home or away, I’m always (rightly!) in a position of responsibility for my children. In the same way, regardless of the strength of relationships with my colleagues and any ongoing internal or external factors, I remain accountable for the HR activity in my division. Leadership is a constant and consistent part of the role…both when we do and when we don’t feel like it ;).

So that’s my learning over the summer, or my homework. I’d love to know what yours has been!

How many times does something have to happen in your workplace before it becomes a trend? Three?….four?…..ten?……twenty? I tweeted this question yesterday and got a fascinating array of answers, none of them definitive, but all of them insightful and interesting.

Graham Salisbury reckoned it to be three times on the basis that once was an occurrence, twice an occurrence and a copy, three makes a trend and four a tradition. Alison Ashford opted for the marketers version of 4 or 5 times, whilst David Goddin estimated 20% of the workforce and provided a technical looking link.

The original reason behind this mulling was because this year so far I have had an unprecedented number of similar happenings in my workplace, which certainly on the above basis, could reasonably qualify as a trend.  And I’d be interested to know whether other organisations are experiencing the same type of activity, or indeed other types of occurrences which could be classed as trends.

So my 2011 trend within the business is the sheer number of requests I have had (I estimate around 15 this year so far) of employees who are looking to leave the UK and work abroad and who are requesting to continue to do their roles from an entirely different geographical location. From Australia to the West Coast of America, from Bulgaria to Holland, the proposals are varied, although seem to consistently come from well-regarded employees who have compelling personal reasons why they need to or want to relocate. And this poses some interesting dilemmas for us as a business.

We are absolutely a global organisation and frequently (not always) have offices in these locations and in many cases the managers support the moves, often on the basis that they don’t want to lose the individual from the business. So far, so good. But these proposals are never simple and it s often my job to robustly challenge the  managers to critically consider them –

  • where does the role need to be based in the long-term?
  • is there actually a vacancy where Joe wants to relocate?
  • will we need to back-fill Joe in the UK to help him fulfill his dream?
  • do we have any HR set-up to actually pay and support Joe in this location?
  • as a business do we strategically want people to be in this location?
  • would we be even considering this if it wasn’t Joe asking for it?
This last question is often the killer question and the most important. Because if the superstar employee asks us to relocate his job to his desired global location, what do we do when the slightly-above-average employee asks the same thing? And if the very average employee asks? It soon becomes quite hard to maintain any degree of consistency or fairness, particularly if it has become completely divorced from business need.
 
So, in response to this trend, I have to admit that I spend quite a lot of time saying no. Not because I don’t value employees or trust them to work in different locations, but because I recognise that we have to have some degree of consistency with how we treat staff and the precedents we set. We are undoubtedly very good at being flexible…but there is a danger that we become so flexible that we actually forget to critically examine the business need for granting any of these moves. You may not agree with me on this; you may feel in this day and age employees should be able to work wherever in the world they want to provided they get their jobs done…the fact is that we, like many organisations, are simply not at that point yet.
 
As for the reasons behind this trend, and the sister trend of requesting sabbaticals, I suspect that it has much to do with the global economic environment, the attraction of relocating to another country and retaining a role within an organisation that you already know, whilst maintaining your length of service. I totally understand why people are asking for this and reducing their own personal risk of potentially facing a period of unemployment. These are most certainly interesting times.
 
I’d love to know what trends you’re experiencing in your workplace, what you’ve been noticing and how you’re dealing with it.
 

Today’s post was going to be all about the Unconference.  And there definitely will be a post about that soon, once I have reflected a little more on it.

Today though, something else happened which really made me think.

I am very lucky in that I don’t feel guilty about being a working mum. I don’t judge anyone for their working arrangements, as life is more than tough enough already balancing home, work, life and children. It struck me today though how precarious the guilt-free state is and how it can quite easily be wobbled by very minor things.

Until my children went to school, I worked three days a week.  Once they had completed their first term and my role at work increased, I started doing four days during term-time, in effect when they are at school.  From a purely selfish point of view it would be easier for me to have four full days at work and one day completely off, but I like the fact that my extra hours don’t really affect my children and that they don’t notice I am now working more. They would most certainly mind if I started doing four full days, so the current arrangement works well and enables me to balance both, albeit that I have to do a quick switch from one ‘mode’ to the other when I dash out to pick them up at home time.

Two things have come up today that have shaken my belief in my convenient working pattern and my guilt-free balancing act. Firstly the fact that due to the various bank holidays, I dropped my children off this morning for the first time in over a week and because of the Easter holidays, its only the second time in about a month. Many of the mums who don’t work were delighted to see me, but also made it clear that we hadn’t seen each other  for ages, because I hadn’t been around. Ouch – that was a pang of guilt you just heard, however illogical I know it to be.

The second thing that is testing my lack of working mums’ guilt is a school trip that has come up: one of my daughters is going on Monday next week, the other on Friday and they are after quite a lot of parent helpers. I have previously helped (pre-Christmas) in my Friday daughter’s class, so if I went with either of them, it ought to be on the Monday.  But I am working then, so I have said as it currently stands that I can’t help.  And I feel bad.

None of this matters much at the end of the day. I’ll assuage the temporary pang of guilt by asking at the end of today whether the Monday trip has sufficient parent helpers: if they don’t then I’ll take the day off and do my bit. But it has reminded me that all working mums and perhaps all working parents who have the main duty of childcare are very prone to an attack of working parent guilt, usually when we least expect it. 

Flexible working, balancing home, work, life and kids is not easy. I’d love to hear about your experiences and how and whether you keep those pangs of guilt at bay, or if you just learn to live with them ;).

When my daughters were born, it transformed my view of working parents into a new-found, complete awe and admiration. How did they manage to turn up at work on time looking presentable and professional, do their roles capably and well, whilst still looking after their little ones outside of work hours? What was their secret and more importantly, where could I learn?! On returning to work after my maternity leave, I also remember berating my husband on several occasions that he did not and could not “understand the luxury of a full-time role”….by which I meant a job where he could leave at a time of his own choosing, not dictated by the demands of dropping off, picking up and putting to bed. Even if it was getting home at 8pm and later, which it often was, and dictated by client demands and overwhelming workload.  Poor Mr C… 🙂

I’ve worked part-time for three years now and learnt a lot along the way, some through my own experience and some things through friends and colleagues who have been happy to share. For anyone in the early days of trying to figure out how to make it work for them, or perhaps just trying to get an insight into how all those superwomen (and supermen) do it, then I hope this helps shed some light.

There are a few caveats to this post; firstly that I am lucky enough to be able to work part-time in a challenging role and that my Company is very supportive of flexible workers. Secondly, I choose to work part-time. And thirdly, I am female (obviously!) and have young children, which I am sure puts a spin of sorts onto it. 

My tips for making flexible working work for you are as follows –

1 – Set boundaries

You’ll need to make your own rules for how you deal with work on the days and times that you are not there, and being consistent about it will help you and others understand how the arrangement will work more quickly. You may choose to set an out-of-office on your email and phone and not look at work related stuff at all. I have to admit that I don’t do this – I tend to read emails even when I am not meant to be working, but I don’t respond unless they are truly urgent. At the end of the day, make the ‘rules’ that suit you, your family and your work and stick to them. You will almost certainly want to review and reassess these along the way….and that’s a good thing.

2 – Accept that there may be limitations

I have found a huge number of advantages in working flexibly, but inevitably there are also likely to be limitations. For example, part-time and flexible working is not usually conducive to managing large numbers of people. I managed a team of 7 whilst working a 3 day week for a short period of time…suffice to say it didn’t make any of us very happy and things had to change!  

You may find you are not in the same pole position you once were for promotions or for doing international travel…not because these options are unavailable to you, but because they would tip the juggling act of work and home out of kilter. And moving to a different external role whilst retaining the flexible arrangements you have in place would be difficult. So sometimes you may feel you are in conflict with your own personal ambition, and to be honest, there is every chance that this may be so temporarily. A friend of mine who felt this very deeply, was reassured by the advice of an older colleague who likened it to a dimmer switch – the ambition is still there and can be allowed to shine more at a later date of your choosing.

3 – Be here, now

Time is almost always of the essence when you work part-time and personally I never experienced the need for self-discipline and intense productivity so keenly when I worked full-time. It’s really important though to be in the moment; don’t spend your time at work thinking and worrying about the issues going on at home and vice versa. Be where you are and focus on that.

 As far as possible, live your working and home life without the burden of self-inflicted guilt. Chances are the childcare arrangements you have put in place will be the best you can possibly arrange and afford, so it is more likely to be you suffering and adjusting than them.  Kids are hugely adaptable, thank goodness!

4 – If you don’t ask, you won’t get

Many companies are prepared to be very flexible with employees and if you don’t ask for the arrangement that will really suit you, you’ll never know whether or not it is possible. I have just changed from a 3-day week to a 4-day week, but working the fourth day as two half days on a Monday and Friday, term-time only. Its early days but it really seems to work for me as I can take my children to and from school and they don’t really notice my increased hours. The trade-off of course, is that I am also flexible and will go in on those days if ever required to.

5 – Don’t apologise!

People rarely remember individual part-time or flexible arrangements; it goes with the territory.  I don’t take it personally when people forget and arrange meetings when I am not working, but I do try to avoid apologising for it or offering to compensate for my absence by dialling in from home.  The more you are able to embrace and accept your own part-time and flexible arrangements, the easier it will be for others to do so too. It took me rather a long time to realise that the person who had most issue with my part-time hours was myself!!

Do you work flexibly or know someone who does? Have you got tips you would like to share or any comments on the above? I’d love to hear from you!


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 235 other followers

HR Juggler’s Archive