The death of the office – will flexible working be part of London’s Olympic legacy?

“Legacy” is one of the buzz words of the 2012 Olympic Games. But does it have to be confined to sports? With up to one million extra passengers expected on London’s transport network each day during the Olympics, Transport for London (TfL) is encouraging people to reduce the need to come into the office. But TfL also sees this as a longer-term opportunity to reduce the passenger numbers on London’s transport infrastructure. Jacobina Plummer, agile-working programme lead at Unilever, examines what this means for the future of work.

Some UK media reports have painted a gloomy future of soulless home working and the death of the office. But I believe that the Olympics could be the catalyst that many companies need to reinvent the office, adopting a new flexible approach to working that benefits both employees and business.

Tips for success

  • Flexible working isn’t a luxury only open to big companies with greater infrastructure and well resourced technology.
  • While you need to get the technology basics right, I don’t believe you need to invest in all the latest gear – there are great tools out there that many of us use in our personal lives. Our people are combining the enterprise solutions we offer with consumer technology, using their personal smartphones and consumer software like Skype, cloud technology and YouSendIt to have great virtual meetings.
  • Key to success is good communication within teams.
  • Basic housekeeping should include a discussion about to what you commit to in order to maintain visibility and maintain relationships. For example, a team might all agree to share calendars and have a weekly team call using video conferencing.
  • You don’t need all of the answers to start the journey.
  • A culture change is a journey – we’ve worked it out as we go, learning along the way. You need to start with a global framework of principles which each country implements in line with its local policies.

“Anywhere, anytime” working

Three years ago, Unilever began the journey to flexible working, introducing a concept that we call “agile working”. Our approach is all about offering every employee choice and empowerment around where and when they work, as long as their job can be done. This culture change means removing the artificial measures of success, such as time and attendance, and focusing on results and performance. Our people are as comfortable working from home, from an airport or a cafe as they are in the office.

So what does that mean for the future of the office? Contrary to some companies’ views, this will never be about getting rid of offices. The workplace still plays a critical role. We’re not witnessing its death, but its rebirth. At Unilever, we have moved away from having a space where people come in everyday from nine to six and sit at the same desk to do their own work. The purpose of today’s office is to bring people together, in spaces designed around activity, with the emphasis on collaboration and the absence of assigned desks.

It can’t be about forcing people away from the office, but providing them with choice around where they work. Unilever is one of many companies on this flexible-working journey, but for the culture change to be adopted I believe it has to be a genuine win-win for employees as well as the business.

Why would a company want to see less of its employees?

You only have to look at university campuses to see how the leaders of tomorrow work. They connect with friends all over the world virtually via Facebook, and work the hours they need to in order to get their work done, be it in the library, the coffee shop or their house.

Giving Unilever’s employees the freedom to work from home, a supplier’s office, or when travelling has seen a wide range of benefits: a company that has a culture of great virtual collaboration is better at fast decision-making and sharing ideas in a global business. This, in turn, results in less travel and real estate, which benefits the environment and also lowers costs. And when nature takes its course, and people are forced away from the office (remember the ash cloud and the snow?), we’ve maintained 100% business continuity as a result.

Along with greater productivity, reduced impact on the environment, a measured increase in engagement and productivity scores, as well as our ability to attract and retain talent, it’s clear to see that agile working meets business needs.

So why not take this Olympic opportunity to grow your business in the long term? The Olympics is a fantastic opportunity for London-based businesses to try out agile working, to maintain business continuity during the summer of 2012. But once you have got the ball rolling and have started to change habits, why revert back to your old office-based culture once the Games are over?

Jacobina Plummer is agile working programme lead at Unilever

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