Why companies of the future will encourage employees to stay away from work

Many would question whether the world needs another week dedicated to raising awareness of an issue. After all, the year must already be close to full up with weeks dealing with everything from various forms of cancer to sausages and a whole lot in between. But like it or not, in the UK February 2012 brings “Anywhere Working Week”, the brainchild of a consortium made up of Business in the Community, Microsoft, Nuffield, Regus and Vodafone with the aim of promoting flexible working. The Anywhere Working Consortium, which is backed by the Department for Transport, Transport for London and the Trades Union Congress, will use the week commencing 6 February to launch a series of interactive events aimed at both employers and employees and to announce various mechanisms for measuring and benchmarking the cost, time and carbon savings that can be achieved through embracing flexible working.

MOBILE WORKING REVISITED

All of which is very good. But have we not been here before? Back in the 1990s, BT was encouraging employers to get many administrative workers to operate from home and link up with their offices via technology. It was all very rudimentary then, with the choice of workplace a stark one – between home and the office. Mobile working was barely heard of. Great claims were made for the improved productivity of the (mainly female) workers who moved to this type of work. But then came claims about the effects of isolation in social terms and also in terms of being passed over for promotion.

The advent of smartphones and all the ancillary technology associated with “the cloud” have changed things considerably. The potential is there for all sorts of workers to do a lot of their work outside of the normal office space. A quick look around a typical crowded commuter train will demonstrate how much work is done on laptops, tablets and other devices. Yet the fact that this work is going on in “commuting hours” suggests that the flexibility offered by modern technology is tending to work in one direction. Whereas in the old days, most office workers left their work behind when they left the building for the simple reason that the tools they needed to do it stayed behind, now – thanks to portable technology – they are likely to put in a full day at the office and then do a lot more on the way home and on the way back in – possibly with more done in between, at home. Such practices might get the job done – at least, in the short term. But they are unsustainable, leading to stress, related health problems and hence an ultimate drop in productivity.

The idea behind the consortium is that if employers and employees knew more about how to make best use of the technology and about what other organisations were doing they would be in a better position to benefit. In the run-up to Work Anywhere Week, the consortium is establishing an online hub that will offer best practice case studies, training, trial technology and other resources to make genuine flexible a reality for many more organisations.

AN OLYMPIC VENTURE

Clearly, one of the factors that helps explain the interest of the Department for Transport and Transport for London is the approach of the Olympics and the effect that will have on public transport, particularly in the South-east of England. Already, businesses are being urged to encourage employees to work more from home. But many will not know how to manage that. (It is probably true that in a great many organisations “working from home” is a euphemism for taking it easy, even if the individuals concerned are genuinely working as hard as they would in the office.)

Mary-anne King

Mary-Anne King, Microsoft UK’s head of environmental sustainability and a member of the consortium steering committee, says a key objective is to “move to business measuring outcomes and not whether people are sitting at their desks”. Although technology can help organisations with that issue by measuring productivity and also by enabling people to communicate easily, it is not the whole solution, she stresses. Trust, she concedes, is a constant factor. But she believes that once the productivity case is made, organisations will realise that it economic sense.

The consortium was announced at WorkTech11, a major conference on the future of the workplace held in London last week (16 and 17 November). Encouraged by those interested in promoting different ways of working, such as the workspaces operator Regus, businesses are increasingly seeing that flexible working is no longer an issue primarily of concern to women (particularly those seeking to balance work with bringing up children). There are serious economic issues involved, including the costs associated with having under-utilised office space and the costs in money and time associated with travel to meetings that can be conducted via technology.

Improvements in the reliability and accessibility of technologies facilitating virtual meetings, including the ability to share documents via the cloud as well as Skype-type communications methods, are clearly of great importance. But among other ideas being considered are encouraging different departments within government and even businesses to share office space and greater use of office buildings on the fringes of large cities, particularly London, in order to ease congestion and save time while still giving workers the social aspects of going to work.

Polls, such as one carried out to mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of Opportunity Now, the campaign to promote women in the workplace, and another by the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, show that all workers value flexibility. Moreover, there is growing evidence that being able to work flexibly makes employees happier.

HAPPIER WORKPLACES

The Happy Manifesto by Henry Stewart

Fittingly, today (Monday 21 November) sees the launch of “Happy Manifesto”, a book by Henry Stewart, founder and chief executive of the training company Happy, that describes how his company has profited by treating its employees and clients as adults. Stewart is a great advocate of open and transparent management, and – as the title of his book suggests – urges others to follow suit.

A useful step might be for more organisations to move away from the idea – theoretical, admittedly – that work takes place in an office between 9 and 5. Just by no longer forcing their people to cram themselves on trains and head into the big cities, organisations could be doing their people and themselves a big favour. Microsoft’s King says that she generally tries to avoid the rush hour by working from home or from a cafe before heading into work. Since it is widely acknowledged that business is global and so not constrained by time zones, it does seem odd that so many organisations stick to a system that is only as old as the industrial revolution.

As Mark Dixon, chief executive of Regus, says: “The fixed location, traditional office is an anachronism, and should be as alien to today’s business as the slide rule is to accountants. I welcome the Anywhere Work initiative – it’s a 21st century approach to 21st century challenges.”

Index B studies the behaviour of thousands of companies and the key trends that drive them to provide insights and intelligence about the way businesses behave. To find out how Index B can future-proof your company please contact us via enquiries@indexb.co.uk

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