Smart working in practice

The European Smart Work Network heard yesterday from three very different employers about how they have implemented smart working.

Image of people at work in the background with technology overlay indicating techposter syndrome


How does smart working work in practice? The European Smart Work Network heard this week from a range of organisations grappling with new ways of working, from a tech start-up to a beer distributor to a massive public sector organisation.

The massive organisation was HMRC which has 65K employees. It used to have 170 different offices across the UK of varying sizes, but, over the last few years, it has modernised, sold off much of its estate and plans to open 13 regional centres covering every part of the UK. Nine of these have now been opened, seven of them since the pandemic.

Grant Smith, smarter working business change manager,  said this had not only saved the organisation money, but it had opened up career pathways for people who did not live in the London area, making HMRC a more attractive employer for those not living in and around the capital.  Previously, he said, people felt they had to be in London when it came to career progression. 

Smith said creating a flexible modern workplace had been a huge cultural shift. Covid had complicated things as it meant people not only coming back to work, but, given the new regional centres, coming back to a new office environment. But because HMRC had done the groundwork before the pandemic it was also in a very good position to adapt to lockdown conditions quickly.

In order to modernise, HMRC has invested a lot in IT and in wifi connectivity so people can be fully mobile in the regional centres. Employees are given mobile devices so they can move around and collaborate. There are desks with room for two screens in 60% of the centre, but also informal areas with different types of furnishings, from high stools to armchairs.

Smith said the hardest challenge was the people part of the equation – getting people to change their mindset and adopt smarter ways of working. HMRC started on this in 2018, running pilots in three locations with 4.5K people involving online collaboration via Teams and remote working. The organisation had had people working remotely in the past, but had never evaluated them and different approaches were taken to remote working across the organisation.

Out of the pilot came smart working standards which centre around doing the right work in the right place at the right time. These were launched in 2019 and cover tools and tech and spaces and places and aim to encourage people to understand the range of places and spaces they can use for work and to take ownership of the technology they use to collaborate better.

Smith said that, having done all of this work on developing a smart working culture, HMRC was able to more or less get all its staff to work from home within 24 hours of the first Covid lockdown. 

Support network

HMRC also benefited from having created a support network with a senior sponsor, a customer group also with senior sponsors and 55 national directorate leads who were tasked with embedding smart working. It developed a smart working maturity matrix in order to track the progress made. This breaks smart working down to a granular day to day level, tracking culture and behaviour, tools and tech and spaces and places. As the pandemic took hold it was able to use this to fast track support, such as information on holding effective meetings and storing information securely.

For Smith, smart working is more than hybrid working. It is about the overarching culture. Employees are now able to work in a hybrid way,  but while HMRC allows remote working part of the week, it is committed to an office-based approach which encourages collaboration and “conversations in the margins”.  However, it will review all progress.

Smith said it had been vital to get senior leadership buy-in and that having smart working champions was very helpful in driving the culture. Taking an insights and data-led approach was also important so that HMRC could understand what the experience was for its people. Cultural change takes time, he added, and is a continuous journey.

Another speaker at the event was Andrzej Borczyk from Grupa Żywiec, who distribute Heineken. He spoke about how the company had transformed its office into an efficient space with a focus on  creating a sense of belonging. This started before Covid with an extensive employee engagement exercise about what employees wanted from work. Many wanted more flexible and remote working and a culture based on trust. The exercise showed that the office needed to be a place to connect, collaborate and have fun. 

The company introduced more flexible start times and focused on collaborative spaces and team work, moving from dedicated desks to a range of workspaces.  Communication was key. They had smart working champions and created personas to show employees who were reluctant to give up their own desks how they could use the office space differently. Every team was represented in discussions about the workspace, including people who visited regularly from the brewery so they could  get different perspectives. They introduced an app to book desks and parking where you could mark if you were in the office, where you were sitting and even order sandwiches. They also changed the office layout to a more fun style, including a bar, and decorated it with lots of branding. The idea was to create a place where people wanted to go and enjoy their time together.

Piet Buyck of remote first start-up Garvis also described how his company’s employees spanned several countries and time zones, meaning they could hire the best people globally. Employees have freedom over their start and finish times and there is an emphasis on team work, equality, diversity and being allowed to fail, he said. Everyone on the team is allocated an area of responsibility so that they feel a sense of belonging.

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