Time unravel: Does it matter where your people are working? by Richard Brent, Briefing

Is yours one of the firms now not only offering people ‘agile’ working – that is, the opportunity to work from home or another place they obviously prefer to the office – but absolutely, positively encouraging it?

If you’re not convinced of the case, you might be interested in some new EY-supported research from Timewise that says almost three-quarters (73%) of ‘Generation Y’ (aged 18-34) working full time now do so flexibly one way or another. I was certainly surprised.

And although flexible-working reality and role models are widely seen as an important element in improving the diversity that runs through an organisation, these researchers also claim they’ve busted the "mum myth." A striking 84% of male (and ok yes, a larger 91% of female) full-time workers strongly prefer “non-traditional working patterns.”

Then, the report cites everything from the path of Brexit, to increased automation of key tasks, and the new obligation to publish a gender pay gap, as pressures building behind getting the agility offer absolutely right. Both firm recruitment models and the very design of jobs of the future (which are by no means necessarily part-time) may need rethinking and revision.

Some have concerns about the agile revolution, however. One fascinating new assessment in the journal New Technology, Work and Employment finds that, while remote working correlates with higher commitment to your organisation – and even feelings of job-related wellbeing – those working this way may well be working significantly harder to compensate for absence from 'the office'.

Co-author Professor Alan Felstead, from the school of social sciences at Cardiff University, said his study “shows that employers benefit from increased effort as workers strive to show that working remotely is not a slacker’s charter.

“However, remote workers find greater difficulty in redrawing the boundaries between work and non-work life.”

Others have other boundary issues – including, with the ‘agile’ open-plan, and potentially hot-desking, offices praised in many an article for producing better project collaboration (and therefore efficiency) and cross-enterprise knowledge-sharing (business opportunity).

BT’s Dr Nicole Millard, for example, recently told New Scientist Live that these benefits only really kick in if you're sat sufficiently close to intended collaborators. And alas, that’s precisely when the less outgoing among us are also more likely to clam up and bury our heads ...

It's not the only problem. “We’re interrupted every three minutes,” The Daily Telegraph reports Millard saying. “It takes us between eight and 20 minutes to get back into that thought process.” 

A knock-on effect of these inccessant interruptions is an increased tendency to “task-switch” – continually juggling day-to-day priorities, and quite possibly dropping the worst possible ball. Time-sensitive emails can go unsent, deadlines and strategic windows get missed. Could this, in fact, be a factor in why productivity is a growing problem for business? (One that Prof Felstead indicates more home-working can apparently help.)

Millard entertainingly predicts the rise of the ‘coffice’ to take on open-plan working in the long run – working alone, but wired, in a coffee shop or lobby location. It should be noted that this may also help our caffeine industry out as there are reports we near ‘peak coffee shop’ – in this country at least. But at a recent Briefing Frontiers event on piloting agile-working, one client-side attendee was clear he wasn't keen on his external lawyers leveraging that opportunity.

Let’s be clear – firms we speak to are mostly highly optimistic about the increased efficiency and attraction of an open-plan/agile combo. And they've taken steps to meet perceived challenges – from designated ‘quiet carriages’ or private booths, to ‘sit-stand' desks that get the blood and engagement pumping that little bit more. They also point to practical management matters, such as careful calibration of in-office and away days; and even rules for exactly who can bother you by email when, about what, outside of core hours.

Still, open-plan may not be the one-size-fits-all, ‘no brainer’ of a change it’s sometimes painted as. Large-scale organisational change certainly shouldn’t be taken lightly. Moreover, any hint of one exciting new rule for some, something else for the others, can be an especially hard sell.

Meanwhile, if there's no place like home, one possible priority might be better data about specific tasks, working patterns and the associated outcomes – so you could at least lead people to some smarter decisions about exactly which work they do where (and perhaps even when). That way higher personal productivity could make for an even happier workforce – plus, of course, healthier profits. 

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