How does Smart Working apply to people who do hands-on, site-specific, directly customer-facing (as in health work) or highly secure work? Andy Lake, author of Beyond Hybrid Working, explains how everyone can benefit from greater flexibility at work.
Smart working guru Andy Lake’s new book Beyond Hybrid Working is just out. In this extract, Andy, editor of Flexibility.co.uk and one of the WMPeople.co.uk Top Employer Awards judges, outlines how to make all jobs flexible or smart.
The focus of attention in recent commentary on working flexibly has fallen on people whose work can be done as well, if not better, away from the traditional workplace – primarily knowledge workers. In most countries, these are less than 50% of the total workforce. So, we have to ask, ‘What about the workers?’
This has become a significant issue, with the potential to create a divide in an organisation’s workforce. The question of equity, a balance of fairness, is something I hear often when speaking with people involved in delivering Smart Working. In some cases, they are reporting growing resentment towards people who not only have the ‘privilege’ of working from home, but also are in receipt of shiny new technology and some allowances to boot.
So, how does Smart Working apply to people who do hands-on, site-specific, directly customer-facing (as in health work) or highly secure work? Is it relevant to them at all? Or as a director at a company in charge of hands-on production work told me: ‘Smart Working doesn’t apply to people in my part of the company’.
Here are a number of ways to address the issues and avoid having a divided workforce:
1) Time-based flexibilities are often possible, if place-based flexibilities are not.
Remembering that choice and control are highly valued by employees, having more freedom to determine the time of work by flexing their hours may be an option. Often this works better at the team level, so work can be coordinated. Team self-rostering is increasingly practised in the health service, and employees much prefer this to having someone in authority deciding who is doing which shift. And it aligns with people and teams being trusted and taking more responsibility for their work and the services they deliver.
People who travel long distances for construction work have been shown to favour a compressed working week, to reduce the time spent away from home. There are various other approaches to a 4-day week.
2) Creating digital equality can improve both the efficiency of work and open up new career pathways and skills development opportunities, which are highly valued.
I’m sometimes taken aback by the stark digital divide that can exist between people in knowledge-based roles and people in hands-on roles in the same organisation. Having seamless end-to-end digital flows for systems, data and communication across all activities in the organisation is necessary to have a single working culture of Smart Working.
In practical terms, this means improved communication between people on the front line with their team managers, product and project engineers, HR and whoever people need to liaise with. It should eliminate the kinds of things that are regularly complained about, like long walks across sites for simple conversations, time-consuming meetings and/or paper job tickets to specify work, for monitoring work-in-progress and for addressing issues as they arise. This kind of basic digitisation is not new, but often the investment hasn’t been made in the technology and systems to make it
In terms of fairness, this takes away at least some of the feeling of being left behind compared with their office-based colleagues. Importantly, it also requires some digital skills development, and this has the potential to open up new career development possibilities. The message to go with this is that you don’t have to stay in the same role forever where the opportunities for more flexibility may be limited.
3) It’s when digitisation moves to the next level that we see even more possibilities.
Many of the principles involved in this kind of routine digitisation are carried forward into ‘Industry 4.0’, or the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. There’s a fair amount of hype and a certain degree of controversy about the term, but overall it is a coherent description of a range of changes impacting the ways we work and the nature of work. And these new industrial technologies can add new possibilities for flexibility and new dimensions to Smart Working.
This stage of industrial development is characterised by the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, autonomous or semi-autonomous systems, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platforms, virtual/augmented/mixed reality, advanced human–machine interfaces, wearable technologies, smart sensors, location detection technologies, 3D printing, machine learning, digital twinning, Big Data and new approaches to data visualisation.
The impact is generally to replace (or partially replace, or modify) human hands-on or site-specific activity with automated processes. In essence this converts some hands-on activity to machine activity. This results in a higher knowledge-based component (and huge amounts of data) to be monitored and analysed by a human and/or an intelligent system, leading to further actions as necessary.
Looking forward over the next 10 years, these kinds of Industry 4.0 technologies are likely to have impacts on both the kinds of services offered, and also the kinds of spaces and settings needed to operate and support them. In essence, as the work becomes smarter and increasingly knowledge- based, Smart Working practices apply more evenly across the business.
There will usually still need to be people in set places building machines and/or working alongside them, but not so many people nor for all of the time. Those involved in programming, monitoring, analysing performance and sometimes supporting them will often be able to do so from a wide variety of locations.
As with more basic digitisation, these technologies also have potential skills impacts. Those on the front line are likely to need additional or different skills to work with the systems involved as they work alongside new machines and systems. This has implications both for training and recruitment. Smart Working puts a strong emphasis on innovation.
I’ve often found that leaders in production environments are often very innovation-minded. However, they don’t always connect their innovation goals with changing working practices in terms of place and time. Making this connection often turns them into enthusiastic champions of Smart Working, as innovations in products and systems and innovations in working practices become mutually supportive. And here, people on the front line often have great insights into what could be improved and how, so support for changes in working practices can be generated from the ground up.
4) More flexible approaches to employee benefits can help to level the playing field.
This works in two directions. On the one hand, we’ve noted how Smart Working can help people manage caregiving issues that suddenly arise by giving them flexibility to deal with emergencies. Having a benefits package that provides emergency childcare support to all employees will provide support to site-based workers as well. Conversely, if the organisation runs a workplace crèche, then that is a benefit lost to parents of young children when they are not working on site, unless they make a special trip to take advantage of it. A benefits package that provides childcare vouchers as well covers that inequality.
I give this as an example of thinking carefully about benefits that are location-specific. We could apply similar considerations about having a workplace gym or fitness room as location-specific benefits. Supporting membership of health and fitness facilities is an alternative approach – and may also help to stimulate the local economy as a by-product.
To be more flexible, many organisations are adopting individualised ‘perks’ allowances. This provides a budget that employees can spend on their choice of benefit, whether it relates to wellbeing, childcare, food, travel or something that might support their work better such as contributing to home broadband costs. The focus is on giving all people choice and controllability around their overall work experience and work–life balance.
One important principle is that one shouldn’t think of benefits or facilities in isolation from providing more choice over how and when people work, but rather how to use employee benefits to enrich people’s work lives in multiple contexts.
5) Finally, in terms of achieving this balance between non-office and office colleagues, upgrading basic facilities for the front line goes a long way to creating harmony.
Mess facilities, rest rooms, canteens and site offices are often the Cinderella facilities in dire need of some TLC. Modernisation of these should include comfortable settings that also take account of the need for front line workers to use technologies both for work use like checking plans or doing timesheets, and for personal use in their downtime. Ensuring Wi-Fi works well in these areas and that there are some places for private calls are essential elements to provide.