The HR Juggler

Posts Tagged ‘Flexible working

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 :).

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 ;).


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