Guest contributor: Clive Memmott, Chief Executive at the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce (Written 29 April 2021)
A year ago, many of the perceived efficiency savings that organisations thought would result from remote working were in reality cost-saving opportunities. 12 months on, companies are struggling to manage a dispersed workforce and achieve these efficiencies.
What is flexible working?
The flexible, hybrid model of working will become the default option for the future, but the problem is this means different things to different people and organisations. I’m surprised by a widespread fairly old-fashioned, binary view of what flexible working means and looks like. To me, this is far more than a simple definition of how many days you work at home and how many days you’re in the workplace.
In reality, it's about using the workplace in a completely different way - accepting that sometimes people will just want to pop into the office for primarily social reasons. The main thing that people miss most from the office is the sense of belonging to a community, and the connection with other human beings.
What are the main challenges for employers?
Leaders, Executives, Managers and Supervisors will have to increasingly tailor their behaviour to individual employee needs and expectations. The primary focus must be on outcomes, and not on ensuring you keep the employee's nose to the grindstone for every minute of the working day. This is hard for many to accept and I am seeing, and hearing about, many examples of bad, belligerent behaviour from management who are still trying to manage in the manner they used for an office-based model.
There is also a lot of evidence that when people work from home they feel they have to work harder because they must compensate for the “privilege” of being able to work from home. It’s interesting that if I ring my staff via Teams/Zoom they almost invariably feel the need to apologise for not answering the call immediately. No matter how many times I say I don’t expect you to sit at the screen all day waiting for a call from me, they still instinctively feel the need to say sorry.
We have to recognise this and change the way we behave. If we send that email late at night with the footnote that “I don’t expect you to reply outside of normal working hours” do we think this is okay? Do we think that the recipients are not going to react to this if they don’t reply straight away? The issue is simply – just because it’s convenient for me to send it doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do. So, don’t do it.
Tailoring the approach to your colleagues
Let me emphasise again the importance of tailoring the Hybrid model of working to the needs of individuals and recognising their circumstances.
- Some may want to work for 4 days or more per week at the office because they feel they can’t be as effective at home because of a complex mixture of individual circumstances: awful Wi-Fi, they need the structure and/or community of the workplace.
Others may want to do 3 days or more because they have limited workspace at home, live close to the office, like the sense of connectedness the office provides, have a perception that there are more career opportunities by being in the office.
Others who want less than 2 days are “remote ready”: with good home working space, live a long way from work, value some office-based socialising, 1-2-1’s and mentoring.
- Then, there are those who see no need whatsoever to return to the workplace: they have a great workspace at home, great Wi-Fi, might live far away from the office, and are happy with the occasional “physical” connection to the company at a large or special event.
The above categorisations are perhaps useful in summarising the different reasons for wanting to work flexibly, but the point remains that the onus shifts dramatically to the employer to manage in a way that recognises individual needs and circumstances in a manner that is unrecognisable from what we did previously.
It is not easy but this is the only way that we will achieve the efficiencies we seek, and then balance this with the changed expectations of our people.
What has the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce done?
We decided to move to a permanent 4 day working week in September 2020 - to recognise the changed expectations of people as a result of Covid. They wanted and valued an improved work-life balance, and this was one way to recognise that.
We did think we had become more efficient and could absorb this. The result has been overwhelmingly successful, but it has also created pinch points and we’ve had to be flexible as an employer and ask the same of our staff to deal with this. I think the reduced working week will become increasingly common and is integral to the new way of working.
The office will remain important and viable but will be used in a very different way, and office space must seriously adapt to this and reimagine the workplace. Just as our towns and cities must reinvent themselves to absorb the seismic shock of the structural changes to the retail sector and a post Pandemic environment.
What should employers consider next?
1) Technology: Huge numbers of us are now skilled (to varying degrees) at using collaborative tools like Zoom/Teams but more tools and Apps will be required to fully support the large scale, long term transition to flexible, hybrid, blended working.
The technology and our ability to use it well is a given, but how we behave when we use it is equally important and a lot of training and development is seriously lagging in this respect. Continual learning and “on-boarding” recruits needs to be approached with fresh eyes in the new ways of working.
2) Performance and compliance monitoring: Monitoring of the remote worker is on the rise and this will need to be managed very, very carefully to try to balance scrutiny with intrusion and invasion of privacy. Surely we can also use equal measures of common sense and trust to focus on outcomes as opposed to tasks.
3) Cybersecurity: We must keep pace with the explosion in remote/cloud-based working. Digital inclusion is vital if we are serious about our deprived citizens and communities.
4) Health and Wellbeing: Individuals must be treated as individuals and individual circumstances recognised and adapted to. That’s the key to understanding what flexible working may, or may not, look like.
It’s not one thing or the other, it’s a complex blend of employee and employer needs adapting to a radically different environment. There has to be give and take on both sides and a willingness to accept that flexible working is dependent on our collective will to be flexible, adaptable, and open-minded ourselves.
The Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce
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