Smart working: the sensible revolution

Andy Lake's new book Smart Flexibility lays out not only the case for a change to a smart working culture, but practical steps for how to achieve it.

What is smart working and why do we need it? A read of Andy Lake's new book Smart flexibility makes it seem mere common sense to implement it. Why would you want to be stuck with obsolete methods of working in a world which is rapidly changing and where the traditional office and work culture already seems to have the distinct whiff of yesteryear?

Lake, editor of www.flexibility.co.uk and coordinator of the Smart Work Network, sets out a broad-based case for the smart working revolution, which embraces everything from the green agenda and reinvigorating local communities to addressing demographic changes such as increasing numbers of working mums and later retirement ages. It's not just about flexible working, he says.  This is more narrowly confined to HR whereas smart working embraces the entire work culture, from IT through to office estate. Drivers for change include the need to do things faster and more efficiently, to overcome barriers of distance and meet customer demands better in a 24/7 society.

Lake's book is intended not, he says, as an argument for the business benefits of smart working [he feels this has already been successfully made], but as a practical guide for how to change the work culture of individual organisations, whatever their size. It is backed up by case studies which show how organisations have implemented change and benefited from the results.

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The first step, says Lake, is to outline vision and strategy and auditing everything from use of office space to technology provision. Implementing the vision might require external support. Next comes communicating the vision and Lake advises that this is where good management, properly supported, comes into its own. Weak management, he says, is “the greatest enemy of change”. Identifying change champions takes the awareness raising about smart working down to the grassroots level.

Lake shows the absurdity of giving everyone their own desk in a mobile age where mobile professionals may be at their desk for less than 25% of their working hours. He says managers tend to overestimate desk occupancy. Based on a space audit of one department in a large organisation where a third of employees have a mobile work style, ie getting out and about to meet customers and partner organisations, he asks: “If we were starting from scratch, what arrangements would we be making?” Clearly not the traditional working arrangements. Through the audit, it is found that the team spends more than two-thirds of its time away from the office. Could they go virtual or home-based?  “What is the value of the office base?” asks Lake. “It's historic, it's comfortable – but is it necessary?” It's also very costly.

Many of the case study organisations he cites have greatly reduced desk space and turned other areas into meeting and collaboration spaces. Several use local hubs or mobile offices, provided by the likes of Regus. The savings they make on office estate are huge, not to mention on travel and energy bills.

Once change has been made, says Lake, its impact can be measured, for instance, in terms of improved productivity or work life balance [through reduced absence rates, for instance].

Homeworking

Lake says there has been conflation between flexible working and homeworking when in fact, if you ask most people they only want up to a couple of days homeworking maximum or flexible start and finish times or compressed hours. 

He reckons only around 10-15% of employees are resistant to any flexibility. Some will cite the kind of job they do and say it is not possible to do it flexibly. The way forward is to question received ideas about how people work best. 

He says that involves breaking work down into tasks – for instance, a lawyer has to be in court, but much of their administrative and research work could be done anywhere. People's ability to do those tasks can be measured on performance criteria wherever they are working, he says. The skills mobile workers need, in any event, are precisely the ones employers should want to encourage – self-motivation, maturity, decision-making and innovation – and they will develop them through managers trusting their employees to work flexibly.  This means better management, based on skills such as emotional intelligence, rather than less management.

Of course, some jobs are location specific, such as waitressing, but many can be unpicked and flexibility built in. Lake envisages a time when flexible work is totally normal and where employers openly advertise flexible opportunities.  It is disappointing, therefore, that even employers who get the case for flexible working are not very good at advertising posts on a flexible working basis and that those agencies which do promote flexible new jobs tend to be aimed mainly at women, no doubt because this is where much of the demand still is. 

Objections

Lake not only explains how the traditional office can change, including what ratio of desks to workers might be best for particular organisations, but he also anticipates individual employees' and managers' objections to change, for instance, those who will be upset at losing their desk and a place to 'put their pencils'. He suggests the best way forward is to allow them to air their concerns, to question ideas of what is necessary for doing a particular job, to raise awareness about why these questions are being asked and to come up with alternatives [in the case of pencil storage, for instance, a pencil case].  Creating a new look office space which has the wow factor also helps in winning people over to new ways of working.

He looks at how technology is transforming and will continue to transform the office – do we need anything more than a laptop, for instance; can we cut face to face meetings to a minimum using conference calls; is the landline phone obsolete in an era of mobiles, VOIP [Internet-based telephony], Skype and instant messaging; will we all be using our own devices for work with all the security implications that involves; will we soon be doing without keyboards and be able to upload our words directly into emails and documents?

It is not technology which is lacking, he states, but a vision which wins over hearts and minds.

Challenge all assumptions is his cri de guerre. Why are we doing this? Why are we doing this here? Why are we doing it in this way and what are we doing it now rather than at some other time? It's a revolutionary call, but one which appeals on so many levels that it appears churlish not to heed it.

*Smart flexibility is published by Gower.

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