It's work, but not as we know it

A conference last week debated how smart working could transform our lives and our economy.

Smart working can change not only work culture and improve employees’ well being, but it could also regenerate local communities.

That was the message of a conference organised by Andy Lake of Flexibility.co.uk last week.

The conference launched a report entitled It’s work but not as we know it. This 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.

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”, which includes more women in the workforce and people working longer. It adds: “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.

The report calls on government to drive down paper use, promote the use of new technology to support remote working, get government staff to work more in the field, closer to their constituents, enable superfast broadband and mobile communications and prioritise engineering and technical skills as well as lifelong education.

It also recommends that homeworking become a central plank of policies for localism and says “outdated regulations preventing or over-regulating home-based work should be reviewed”. It calls for workhubs and coworking spaces to be supported by public authorities and for an end to “the default separation in planning policy between homes and workplaces”. Wider policy recommendations include for architects to design homes to be work/life properties and a new more flexible approach to land use where work is not hived off into industrial zones but more integrated in city life.

The conference heard from a range of employers who had benefitted from wholesale flexible working. Many, like Vodafone, had begun their journey towards smart working by rationalising real estate to save money. However, with the backing of senior leaders, the work culture had been transformed which helped the companies to make the most of smart working. This included hot desking, smarter ways of working being embedded in induction for new staff, an emphasis on management by results and a more creative use of space with different allocated areas for meetings, debate and concentrated work plus remote working supported by technology. Vodafone is now in the fourth stage of its smart working revolution, with the focus on employee wellbeing. Developments include spaces for gyms and restaurants being incorporated into office design. The smart working culture was being rolled out internationally with local culture determining around 20% of the style adopted.

Training

Other employers such as Natural England said smart working had halved their costs, reduced carbon footprint and improved staff survey scores. Paul Clark of Plantronics said the company had studied how to support remote working best, for instance, looking at training in how to make conference calls more effective and technical support for improving audio on calls to make it easier to focus on what was being said.

Bridget Hardy, architect of the Cabinet Office’s The Way We Work programme which is implementing smart working across the civil service, talked about the importance of departments celebrating their achievements with smart working and how remote working enabled government to access expertise from around the country.

Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics, spoke of the way US government had reduced flexible working in recent years despite increased demand from employees. She called for more training on how to implement smart working, but said the training had to be effective and backed by technology.

For Tim Dwelly, Director of the Workhubs Network, smart working was about changing the face of local city centres and regenerating the economy. He is based in Cornwall where one in four people work from home and 50,000 run home-based businesses, most of them men. He said this was not just about the recession, but was an ongoing trend. Hubs offered people a hybrid between work and home and should therefore provide a crossover environment, he said. They could offer ‘sea turtles’ – people returning home after working in the big cities – a place where they could do their job remotely while also benefitting local city centres such as local restaurants and shops.

“Work is changing as much as high street retail is. Workspace needs to reflect this,” he said.





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