We’ve all heard about the advantages of flexible working for employees and more recently there have been a number of companies emphasising the business benefits. But a recent report has highlighted the wider social advantages of new ways of working – from local economic regeneration to greater democracy and environmental benefits.
The report entitled It’s work but not as we know it by Andy Lake from Flexibility.co.uk and Tim Dwelly of the Workhubs Network identified a host of trends – from working fewer hours, working from home and the decline in people working in traditional workplaces to the rise of freelancers and contractors, the emergence of new roles and the fact that home is becoming the default location for new business.
These new trends are supported by the shrinkage of traditional offices and the emergence of new screen and surface technologies, voice recognition and embedded artificial intelligence which the report says will have a major impact on how work spaces are defined. The report also notes the rise of ambient computing which is embedded in environments and interacts with other devices and of workhubs which are typically close to people’s homes and combine the benefits of homeworking and the sociability of office working.
All of this has the potential to transform not only working, but how we live. If, for instance, more people work locally – either from home or a hub office – it could transform sleepy commuter towns and villages as people spend more money in local shops and restaurants. It could cut companies’ carbon footprint and also offer a democratic advantage if central government workers were more embedded in local communities rather than the Westminster village.
Changing the mindset
The report says the full benefits of more smart working will only happen, however, if employers adopt “a mindset for transformation that recognises the scope of the changes taking place”. It states: “It goes far beyond enabling ‘flexible working’ by granting requests from individual employees for new workstyles. It involves developing a vision and strategy for the comprehensive adoption of smarter ways of working, and investing in the tools, work environments and culture change to maximise the benefits.” This means developing an approach where flexibility is normalised. It also has implications for government, for instance, it requires greater roll out of superfast broadband and more emphasis on lifelong education as workers need to acquire new skills to adapt to a fast-changing workplace.
Among the report’s policy recommendations is a suggestion that architects design homes to be work/life properties and that councils adopt a new more flexible approach to land use where work is not hived off into industrial zones but more integrated in city life.
Companies who are in the vanguard of switching to what is known as agile, smart or anywhere working are quick to emphasise the advantages. Often they started out by looking for ways to cut their real estate costs, but then they became agile working converts and implemented a wholesale change in their organisation’s work culture. This often means not just cutting office space and implementing hot desking, but redesigning the workplace entirely – bringing in areas for concentrated work, collaboration zones and “decision” rooms [a term that focuses the mind more than boardrooms]. Companies like Vodafone and Unilever have been rolling these policies out internationally. Tech companies are busy developing better ways to support remote working, including Plantronics which has researched how to improve audio on conference calls. They say tone of voice becomes of primary importance in such meetings whereas body language is key in face to face meetings. They also train their workers in how to make more impact in conference calls.
Tim Dwelly, Director of the Workhubs Network, says the work revolution has only just started. He said: “Work is changing as much as high street retail is. Workspace needs to reflect this.”
In his recent e-book Business Reimagined, Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer for Microsoft UK, says: “We spend our working days locked to a single period of time and a single physical location, batting communications back and forward in a sort of nightmarish game of digital ping-pong. Success is defined by the number of individual processes we complete not the outcomes of the organisation.”
He talks about the need to redefine what work means, find new ways of managing by outcomes rather than presenteeism and create businesses that are more social, responding to the new technology and the primacy of social media. He says: “Technology is here to empower people. But that doesn’t work if human structures, habits or fears constrain them. If businesses won’t let their employees be free, they’ll be doing the 21st-century equivalent of trotting in front of a car waving a length of scarlet cotton. And their competitors in the fast lane will wave to them as they pass.”