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Smartening up: the revolution in remote working

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Smartening up: the revolution in remote working

In the last fortnight, a mass worldwide experiment has begun, in home-working. With countries around the globe imposing restrictions on movement to tackle coronavirus, employees have been setting up semi-permanent offices in their kitchens, garages and understair cupboards.

Exactly how this will impact on the way people work once the crisis is over is not yet clear, but it is likely to make employers more amenable to the idea of flexible working.

It builds on a trend that was already well-established for so-called smart working (more on the definitions later). Those who advocate for smart working in normal times point to its manifold benefits, from increased efficiency and productivity to improved staff wellbeing and better staff retention.

These are not normal times. For many staff, the switch to home working has happened with little or no preparation or training. Many workers suddenly find themselves trying to work at home perched on inappropriate furniture in crowded spaces while also caring for children or ageing relations. The experts’ usual advice to organisations – that they should think hard about what they wish to achieve from smart working, consult widely with staff about how to make it work and plan any moves carefully – has simply not been possible.

Nevertheless, this “muddling through” is likely to open the eyes of both employers and employees to the benefits of doing things differently, though they may also learn the hard way what can go wrong when smart working is not properly thought through.

Smart working is not just home working or flexible working, nor is it just about using technology to work more efficiently. It’s about trying to ensure that people are working in the most efficient and effective way, in the most suitable place. Often, this will mean using technology like laptops to work from home at least some of the time in order to save on commuting and make it easier to balance work and caring responsibilities.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, it involves giving employees a high degree of autonomy, having teams work virtually and trusting staff to get their work done. In smart working, achievement is measured not according to the hours an employee works but the outcomes they achieve.

It’s not a new idea. Bridget Workman, a former chartered surveyor and civil servant who spent 20 years developing smart working principles for the UK Government, now runs the Changing Work smart working consultancy and has written two books on workplace change. She traces its origins back at least two decades. At that time, she notes, there was a trend for refining open plan offices into different zones for different tasks: the old-fashioned one-size-fits-all office was no longer optimal. The need for employees to be able to work more flexible hours had also become a major concern.

When the recession hit after 2008, saving money became a priority for many organisations, who started considering how they might cut office costs. By the early 2010s, the technology had also developed for much more effective mobile working, on laptops and even phones, feeding a growing expectation among employees that they should be able to work from home or on the move if they wanted to. Employers started to see how offering this option would help them attract and retain staff.

All this, and the fact that commuting is such a headache for so many people, has combined to produce a situation today where millions of employees have laptops and other mobile devices and spend at least part of their time working outside the main office. According to work-life balance charity Working Families, 53 per cent of Scottish parents say they work flexibly (that is, they work a pattern other than the traditional nine to five, Monday to Friday).

Smart working is now common all over Scotland, in the public, private and third sectors. The Scottish Government, for instance, offers home working and part year working. (In the present circumstances, the default position for Scottish Government staff is home working, though this is not possible for all staff.)

For organisations and individuals to get the most out of smart working, however, it should be planned, says Workman. “You always have to understand the ‘why’,” she says. “You have to ask ‘what are we hoping to achieve?’”

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, adds that jobs have to be designed carefully to make sure they are what she calls “human-sized”. This should be done in close consultation with the employees themselves: “Find out what they want and what they need. Then have a look at the jobs and see: can this be done in three days a week? Which bits need to be done physically in one location, like head office, and which don’t? When do they need to be done?”

One organisation in Scotland that has gone further than most with smart working is West Dunbartonshire Council.

Alison McBride, strategic people and change manager at the council, explains the council’s approach, which started with the chief executive committing to it and leading from the front.

“Initially the real driver, and where the project gained momentum, was office rationalisation,” she says. The early 2010s was a time when local authorities were cash-strapped and savings had to be found from things like estate costs in order to protect core services. “We wanted to use buildings to the best of their ability.”

The drive for smart working was designed to meet the specific needs of West Dunbartonshire and at its heart was a massive exercise in consulting with staff, not just at the outset, but on an ongoing basis.  “We made sure people understood why we were shutting offices, why we were recycling and so on. We were really, really big on engaging across the organisation.”

So-called change champions were involved in leading the transformation and were encouraged to think about how changing the way they worked would impact on service provision, local people and staff teams, so that they felt empowered. The change champions supported and involved the staff, and they were in turn supported themselves.

At the outset in 2013, there were ten employees to every eight desks; now the ratio at the council is ten employees to five and a half desks.
“We went from nobody working from home to 59 per cent working from home,” says McBride. (Now of course it’s almost 100 per cent.)
The process was not dictated to staff. “We let people naturally work from home,” notes McBride. However, the culture was set from the top with senior leaders doing so as well.

So what have the benefits been? McBride lists the reduction in estate, and a drastic reduction in printing and in travelling (there was a 25 per cent drop in travelling expenses in the first year alone). There have been other crucial benefits too, principle among them higher levels of staff satisfaction due to the better work/life balance they were achieving. Productivity is also high.

But West Dumbartonshire has gone further. It has ended the ‘flexitime’ system, where staff clocked in and out, with the focus now on ensuring service delivery rather than how many hours people work. It has also ended the system of traditional annual appraisals, which can be bureaucratic, and replaced them with “be the best” conversations with individual staff about how they want their role to develop and supporting them to achieve their goals. The innovative approach has been running for three or four years and has garnered huge interest. “It sends a message of trust to the employees,” says McBride.

This is a very long way from the culture in some other organisations.

Jane van Zyl says one of the reasons some employers remain suspicious of such an approach is a pre-existing culture of presenteeism. “It’s that idea of ‘I need to eyeball you first thing in the morning and last thing in the afternoon so I know what you’re doing’.”

This is wrong-headed, she argues: “People think workers are less efficient and productive [if they are not in the office] but we would say that’s absolutely not the case.” Working Families surveys top employers for flexible working and their latest survey shows that 14 per cent of their staff were achieving the highest performance rating but the figure for part-time and reduced hours staff was 34 per cent.

“We know that where people offer flexible working for parents and carers, people stay because they value it more than a salary,” says van Zyl. “It generates loyalty.”

Good, dependable IT that is suitable for the organisation’s need is naturally critical for smart working. “The aim should be to give people genuine choice about how and when they work,” says Workman. IT cannot replace the face to face meeting entirely – it’s hard to pick up people’s microexpressions from a screen – but video conferencing is an improvement on a phone call.

Lots of people are currently getting a crash course in it: board rooms and meeting rooms are standing empty while platforms like Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams and Zoom are busier than ever. The advent of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), meanwhile, allowing employees to log in securely to their work IT systems from home, means that everyone from doctors to advertising executives can pick up bits of work remotely at all times of day.

Good display screen equipment, reliable WiFi and docking facilities at the office and at home that allow tablets, phones and laptops to be recharged easily by workers on the move, are crucial to smooth smart working.

There are potential pitfalls to smart working however, and in the current circumstances many workers will be falling into them. One is the lack of a suitable work station at home. Outside of the office, staff may be trying to work on unsuitable kitchen chairs or even sitting hunched over a computer on their bed. This can lead to long-term back problems and repetitive strain injury. Van Zyl stresses that employees have a responsibility to speak up if they need a better chair or laptop stand, since managers will not necessarily know their needs.

Another common problem is businesses introducing new technology and expecting staff to be able to use it without adequate training; similarly line managers are sometimes expected to manage people remotely without being trained in how to do so.

Managing people remotely presents unique challenges. Some employees may be in danger of becoming isolated. Others may feel buried under an avalanche of work and caring responsibilities, particularly at present. Working Families would never advocate any kind of care and work at the same time, in normal times. “It just isn’t sensible,” says van Zyl. But with schools and nurseries closed, workers have no choice.

“There will be stuff happening now [as a result of enforced home working] that we wouldn’t recommend, like working in the evening,” says van Zyl. “That’s supposed to be your time as an adult, after the kids are in bed.”

As with any workplace change, policies and technology can only do so much: the work culture of an organisation comes from the top. “Whenever we go into organisations we would say to senior leaders who need to be walking the walk that they shouldn’t be sending emails at 6.30pm and expecting answers if that’s not the employee’s work time.”

In spite of these challenges, van Zyl believes the current home working phenomenon is a “huge opportunity” that will improve the attitudes of both employees and employers to smart working.

For many organisations, there will be no going back to the way things were. 

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