Does Remote Working Need More Flexible Thinking? Reviewing The RSA Paper – ‘The Flex Factor’
Does ‘The Flex Factor’, a recent paper published by The RSA offer a balanced exploration of the pros and cons of remote and flexible working? Whilst I am a big fan of the use of new collaboration technologies and they may open up new avenues of innovation, Yahoo’s recent decision to restrict remote working shows that not everyone has the same view on what flexible working really looks like …
Welcome To The Flex Factor…
Julian Thompson (Director of Enterprise at The RSA) and Edward Truch (Lancaster University Management School) were commissioned by The RSA’s Action and Research Centre to examine the adoption of flexible working. The research was sponsored by Vodafone and it was published in July 2013. You can read the full report – here. For those (like me) interested in how flexible working is taking shape in the UK – and how it may impact on creativity, collaboration and innovation it is a very useful piece of work.
The paper was written with the aim to; ‘understand its impacts and pilot a benchmarking scheme to help organisations optimise rather than merely increase their use of flexible working.’ – and the report was based on results from their own original online survey of 2828 UK employees conducted in March this year.
Flexible working, as defined by The Chartered Institute of Personal Directors refers to; ‘ A type of working arrangement which gives some degree of flexibility on how long, where and when employees work. The flexibility can be in terms of working time, location and the pattern of working’.
What does this mean in practical terms? It means an ability to work outside of traditional barriers such as geography, time and business silos. It means being able to work from home with a laptop and logging-in to conference and video calls and accessing shared project files and spaces.
It means potentially scheduling work around easier commuting and other commitments. It often sees increasing use of social media, digital and cloud based tools – such as IM and informal networks, to help facilitate better interaction. We are now as likely to login to a video call from home or a café using a tablet as we are to attend a board meeting on the 6th floor. Technology will perhaps help un-burden us from the daily commute and being chained to the office. Perhaps? Or will it simply install a new restriction and imposition on our time and energies?
This profound change in our business culture is driven by the nexus of hardware and software development. It is made possible because of faster networks (4G, Wireless etc.) – and smarter devices. From Google to Cisco and from Adobe to Microsoft, the international giants of technology are investing heavily in these technologies. Millions are already using services such as Huddle, Basecamp, Dropbox, Skype and Tallyfox. And the UK technology and telecoms sector is also leading the way too. Vodafone, Powwownow and Kaboodle are all examples of British companies pioneering fast in this space.
The Flex Factor identifies four main benefits for adopting flexible working; savings, performance, work-life-balance and well-being. It reports that 77% of UK employees are working in organisations that have flexible working – and 55% are said to be favourable of it. Flexible working is supported most strongly by senior managers in Central Government, ICT, Arts & Media and Finance sectors. It is promoted as a means to improve productivity, cut down on commuting, provide more time and space for work-life balance and well-being – and (of course) – as a means to save the business money in facilities and support services.
Innovation? Or Ambivalence And Suspicion?
In terms of innovation however, the jury appears still very much out. The research reveals that just 48% of those surveyed believe flexible working contributed to innovation – and 42% thought it made no difference. Yet, with innovation being the key business objective to so many organisations how do we square the rise in flexible working and remote technologies with the need to innovate? Clearly, the fit is not not a perfect one.
Whilst the paper is broadly supportive of flexible working and the new technologies and work-life culture it also acknowledges that there are issues and challenges too. As the report says; ‘a significant amount of ambivalence and suspicion still remains. The result for some is either a complete lack of adoption or an uneasy transactional and weak form of exchange between employer and employee with only limited gains and significant costs’.
Does the ability to login to conference calls and update files from home outside of core working hours help work-life balance or actually prevent it? A recent report from China revealed that many Chinese business executives, by being ‘always on’ – felt the need to be within two hours of replying to any communications from their bosses : whilst on holiday. It is a dystopian not a utopian view of how the future may unfold. And Wired magazine‘s Ben Hammersley raised concerns about the modern office environment and culture – and constant need to be in contact in his talk at The RSA earlier this year (see my blog)
However it is the recent changes in the policies of Yahoo – and the comments of leading innovation author Scott Berkun that are particularly useful builds to this discussion
The Yahoo Decision – And Cafeteria Conversations…
The notion that all teams and businesses can be more creative, collaborative and productive by working flexibly and using the latest communications tools was challenged prominently in February this year when the CEO of Yahoo, Marisa Mayer controversially opted to ban home working. She was widely criticised, as being out of touch and an example of why Yahoo has lost its way. It was said that her decision was a step backwards. Mayer is an executive who was voted the 14th most powerful business woman by Fortune Magazine in 2012. She was the 20th employee at Google and led Google’s engineering and development teams and she rose to become VP of Google Local, Maps and Location. So her opinion on what makes for productive working in a modern business should not be dismissed lightly. So why did Mayer ban home working? Is she just an old fashioned 38 year old CEO who doesn’t get the modern technology age? What is the real story here?
In March, Business Insider revealed that Mayer’s decision was not some knee-jerk rejection of technology and creativity. It was based on analysis of work data. An experienced analyst she examined the metrics of remote worker’s use of the Yahoo network (VPN) and their productivity. As Business Insider put it; ‘ We’re hearing from people inside Yahoo that they are thrilled and that she made the right decision banning working from home. There isn’t a massive uprising. The truth is they’ve been pissed off that people haven’t been working’.
Yahoo published its internal memo and it offers a very clear view on why they changed their policy;
“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together.” – internal memo from Jackie Rees, Head of HR, Yahoo,
Scott Berkun, commentator and author of best seller – ‘The Myths Of Innovation’ also discussed the decision by Yahoo. He agrees that remote and flexible working has its place but it is not one size fits all. His main points of note about this debate are;
1 – Not all remote work is the same. Each business has to find the remote working practice that suits their structure, industry and culture. Yahoo was quite right to say it was not working for them.
2 – Remote working does not mean working from home. Many workers now work from shared work spaces, business centres or perhaps from clients’ offices.
3 – Some Work Is Easier / Harder To Do Remotely: Customer services and software coding can be managed well by individuals working by themselves from home, using ICT to communicate with co-workers. However, complex and fast paced projects that require high degrees of iteration and debate are not best served by the screen alone. As my contact in broadcasting said to me recently, TV production teams have to be in the same office to properly coordinate a major project and remote working just does not fit that kind of dynamic culture.
4 – Remote Working Can Be In The Office: If you sit in an office and spend most of your time wearing big headphones, logged into systems and communicating only by email and other electronic tools, then it could be argued you are already operating as a ‘remote worker’.
5 – The Primary Challenges Are Cultural: Whether remote working fits with a business is dependent upon the leadership style. It touches on issues of trust and responsibility – more than the use of the latest software…
6 – It’s Not For Everyone: ‘There are social and psychological advantages to being in the same physical space with the people you are working with.’ – Scott Berkun
I think Berkun has this debate just about right. Remote working policies and new technology may improve collaboration and work-life balance. But by themselves they are not a solution and certainly are not a kick starter to innovation – as the Flex Factor Report and other commentators have shown. It is often said that management is really only about solving either a process problem or a people problem. And that when you analyse the process problem you discover that in most cases, it is at its heart really a people problem.
This debate is about more than processes, policies and the latest technology and tools. File sharing and lots of calls and meetings is not collaboration – it is just file sharing and lots of calls and meetings. True collaboration involves people having the personal ability to share ideas, network, co-create, build, argue and move beyond just agreement on administration. Flexible working by itself is not the key to unlocking business improvement, innovation or a better work-life balance. It is just flexible working.
- Yahoo gets receives top marks for work/life balance (sfgate.com)
- Teleworking to be the norm sooner than expected (shoretelsky.com)