The workplace of the future is a place of great promise. IT communications liberate workers from office hours and locations, enabling everyone to work productively whenever and wherever they desire. Implemented successfully, the brave new workplace could help the UK close the productivity gap on its European neighbours, and finally shrug off its long-hours culture.
However, according to Dr Carsten Srensen of The London School of Economics and Political Science, realising this goal will involve significant change in working practices, and, in particular, in UK management.
Srensen’s report, The Future Role of Trust in Work – The Key Success Factor for Mobile Productivity, pulls few punches when it comes to UK management.
“UK business must invest more in its workforce and redefine the traditional hierarchical order of command and control to become more productive,” he writes. Managers need to learn how to manage and monitor employee performance remotely and efficiently. Put simply, they need to learn to trust the people who work for them.
“One of the key management competencies is to manage output and results as opposed to managing people and what they’re doing,” says Peter Thomson, director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College. “That means setting targets and measurements, and putting in processes that are not reliant on having to stand over people and seeing that something is done.”
Thomson will shortly publish his own findings into the current state of management skills in the UK. Like Srensen, his report is part of the ‘Tomorrow’s Work’ research programme launched by Microsoft in 2003.
“Managers pay a lot of lip service to empowering employees,” says Thomson. “But if you look at management practices, they actually work against empowerment.”
One prime example of this is the culture of ‘presenteeism’, which appears to reward the inefficient worker who has to work overtime to complete a task, while penalising the efficient worker who finishes at 3pm and leaves early.
“If you can get the work done, why should I care if you are in the office at 9am or 10am?” asks Thomson. “For information-based and office jobs, when and where the work is done is largely irrelevant.”
Ian Murray, policy officer at the Trade Union Congress (TUC), agrees this may be the case for information-orientated businesses, but adds that factory and customer-facing workers will continue working from specific places at specific times.
“There needs to be a note of caution about radical changes occurring in the workplace,” he says. “Research from the Economic and Social Research Council shows that people are largely still doing the same kind of work they did 20 years ago.”
However, the need for remote working skills is growing, and clearly plays an important part for staff who wish to enjoy a good work-life balance. In this context, Murray is keen to see that workers are not saddled with the task of gaining these skills on their own.
“I’d be very concerned if the support and responsibility for training and skills were transferred to the employee,” he says.
Murray points to the Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) as playing a key role in ensuring unions, employers and training providers all play their part in delivering the skills required by industries in the years to come. The initiatives outlined by Skillset, the media SSC, could prove particularly informative, given the largely freelance nature of that industry’s employees.
At Microsoft, training programmes have already been designed to support the organisation’s flexible working strategies and output-orientated operations.
“Managers undertake the Manager Essentials training programme,” says Kay Winsper, HR manager at Microsoft UK. “And as individuals and employees, we all go through Personal Excellence and Fit For Life Training, which enables you to discover what you’re looking for from Microsoft, and what you can give the company in return.”
Both programmes encourage staff to share common goals and respect each other’s working practices. These kinds of issues enable teams to work closely and more effectively with each other. Trust cannot be taught, but by enabling this level of communication within the workforce, it can at least be cultivated.
Thomson believes the move to gaining appropriate skills in the new workplace will occur organisation by organisation, rather than through any national drive.
“There are qualifications, such as the European Computer Driving Licence, which demonstrate some level of competence in IT,” he notes. “And at one stage, there was a move towards a teleworking qualification. But teleworking isn’t something you ‘do’, it’s a way of working. That makes competencies difficult to prove.”
Key skills for managers
Successful managers will learn how to:
1 Manage individuals and teams according to output, rather than input
2 Create social interaction between remote staff
3 Effectively train remote workers in new skills and how to ensure those skills are used effectively
4 Match the location with the work required – such as whether a task/meeting/conversation should take place online, in person, or via videophone
5 Cultivate and maintain trust between staff and between workers and managers.
Go to www.henleymc.ac.uk for further information