“We can’t afford to employ people to watch over each other,” says Carsten Sorensen, of the London School of Economics and Political Science. “Command-and-control management might give almost full employment in the UK, but managers spend too much time making sure everyone else is working.”
Sorensen is the author of The Future Role of Trust in Work – The Key Success Factor for Mobile Productivity, the first report from software giant Microsoft’s ongoing research programme ‘Tomorrow’s Work’. His contention is that technology-supported teleworking will help increase productivity for organisations across the UK. And he is not alone in believing the remote workforce is the workforce of the future.
Last year, research from IT services supplier Unisys found that 49% of workers wanted to structure their working day outside the conventional nine to five. And a survey conducted by global telecoms giant AT&T and the Economist Intelligence Unit found that two-thirds of executives in 2004 had some staff working from home regularly, with 81% identifying the support of homeworking as a ‘critical’ or ‘important’ network goal.
With employment legislation now giving parents with children under the age of six the legal right to work flexibly, even the government is getting in on the act.
Technology – the internet, message boards and instant messaging – enables employees to maintain contact with their colleagues and work where they want, whenever they want. However, getting the best from flexible work requires a change in the way employees are managed.
According to Sorensen, employers and managers need to trust their employees to do the work required without standing over them to make sure it is done. This level of trust is not common among organisations in the UK.
Peter Thomson, director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College, agrees.
“Some organisations think that if they allow people to manage their own time they’ll go off to the shops and never get the work done,” he says. “Experience shows it is the reverse. People who are given freedom to work in their own time respect that and work hard.”
Microsoft has been evolving its own flexible working practices, creating an ‘output-managed’ approach to ensure that staff remain productive, according to the company’s UK HR manager, Kay Winsper.
“All employees have a one-to-one with their manager every month to check their work is in line with the business objectives,” she explains. “Everyone has between five to seven commitments at any one time, which are aligned to the organisation’s objectives.”
Joseph Roitz, director of teleworking at AT&T, believes monitoring the performance of remote workers is actually easier than checking that of workers in the office.
“The idea that you know what your workers are doing in the office is a fallacy,” he says. “It’s easier to stay on top of employee activity online where you can see e-mails and check message boards. By comparison, I can never find anyone in the AT&T offices – they’re always in some meeting or other.”
Rather than taking a tentative approach to teleworking, AT&T has made it part of everyday working life.
“Our rule of thumb is that every job is capable of being carried out remotely until proved otherwise,” says Roitz. “Occasionally something doesn’t work out, but you have to put the final decision on whether the job is done remotely in the hands of the manager concerned.”
Some commentators believe the push towards networked remote working is nothing short of a revolution – comparable to the change experienced at the beginning of the industrial revolution. If so, managers really do face a radical change if they are to realise the full benefits of the new workplace.
As Thompson says: “Management needs to get better at setting targets, but it also needs to learn how to better communicate with people.
“The temptation is to say managing remote workers is too difficult, so keep everyone in the office. But the fact is that more and more employees want flexible working and they are likely to vote with their feet.”
Old work vs new work
- Work is a location where value is derived for the organisation
- Performance measured through inputs (time worked, attendance, amount of visible effort)
- Visually checking on employee work
- Casual socialising in the workplace
- Workplace-based training
- Work is a value-creating activity which can be carried out anywhere
- Performance measured through outputs (goals achieved, contribution to organisational targets)
- Virtually checking on employee work through technology networks
- Organised socialising, eg, making sure employees attend an evening out together
- Blended training delivered at a variety of locations including the home office via the internet
Getting flexible working right
- Culture first: No flexible work initiative will be success-ful if the company culture still places maximum value on being in the office
- Ensure the technology works
- Do not expect a worker to work remotely if their technology isn’t up to the job
- Autonomous decision-making
- Employees and managers should determine how individual work is carried out remotely
- Preserve face-to-face contact
- Make sure employees come to the office regularly for formal and informal meetings