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The job of management is not to select the best ideas; it is to create a system that allows for the best ideas to emerge

Here in the Lab, we have always championed a more flexible approach to work.  We are creatives by nature, so we believe that by each colleague having individual control over how, when and where they choose to do their work makes for more inspired outputs.  Companies such as Netflix, Buffer and Sprinklr all have similar working practices, but as more and more companies strive to become more agile, this got us thinking:

  • Does this approach really work for everyone?
  • How can you stop people taking it too far?
  • Is it really possible to produce your best work from a beach in the middle of Thailand?

Last Thursday, we posed similar questions to the Twittersphere around this subject, because we are genuinely interested to hear more from people as it is such as hot topic.  Here's a roundup of some of our key points and insights....

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This was an interesting question.  Human beings are interesting, for while we are all biologically similar, we are also uniquely different.  In terms of working anytime, the 9-5 used to be something that was desired, as was your own office, a PA, name plaque on your desk, that sort of thing.  The world of work has moved on though and now it seems that the 9-5 format of some roles just doesn't work.  Its all down to circadian rhythms, or our 'body clock', which have a profound effect on our productivity - and explains why some people (ahem, me) are literally useless before 10.30am.  

The great thing to hear from the conversation was that many of you are aware of your own natural rhythm and already have the ability to organise your work day around this.  I was pleasantly surprised that many people were like me in doing there best work in the evenings - maybe creatives are night owls - but the important point to recognise is that a flexible approach to work allows an organisation to get the best from their colleagues 100% of the time.  As Ben mentioned, there is a difference between being productive and busy - and it seemed for many that a prescriptive 9-5 culture meant colleagues were often more busy than productive.

What about location?  Well, this was less of an issue to people when compared to a flexible approach on time.  Historically, offices were generally designed with everyone in mind, which meant they worked for precisely no one - by which I mean that no one would choose to have an office designed in the way they do, mainly grey, functional and to put it bluntly, dull.  It's great to see so many organisations redesigning more creative and collaborative spaces, retaining the essence of what an office is meant to do, but putting a bit of 'fun' back into function.  There was a general consideration that there will always be a core of people that need that discipline of coming into an office to be able to produce their best work, same as there will always be a core of people that find working in public really distracting.  

For now, office working is definitely not dead, but the old traditional ideas are being replaced by more a more refreshed approach.  That's an idea we can all get on board with.  

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Now, I'm going to nip the technology one in the bud now, as its the obvious one.  We all know that having the right kit for your role is crucial to an approach like this working, and there is a massive frustration that many people trying to work more flexibly can't, either due to outdated kit or internal bureaucracy and security.  It's a big barrier, but it's the easiest to solve!  Organisations need to make sure that when rolling this out, their infrastructure and hardware can support this style of working.  It's not as easy as issuing everyone with a standard Dell laptop and telling colleagues to crack on - it requires significant investment and time from your ICT departments, but for all the hard work and money, you should receive massive return on investment in colleague productivity, well-being and happiness!

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Culturally, there are some huge barriers to overcome too.  'Presenteeism' is one that people mentioned countless times - I myself have overheard colleagues make snippy comments about others, including 'how do they know if he/she is working?' Now, this may be groundbreaking to some people but....

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Naturally, although people may be working hard remotely, another barrier this presents is contacting colleagues and ensuring people don't become isolated.  Some examples people have were:

  • Colleagues smashing through their to do lists with ease whilst working from their local Starbucks, but inconveniencing other peers by bombarding them with 1,000 emails, many of which may have actions
  • Colleagues logging in after 10pm but frustrated that they can't get an answer to their questions
  • Colleagues not being available via email or phone when something important needs to be resolved

I've always been curious about how Netflix challenged this barrier when implementing their contracts based on outcomes not hours.  It's quite easy to get people to adopt this way of working, but how do we challenge historic behaviours so these issues don't arise?  There will always be a time when you need to speak with a colleague, but how can this be managed when colleagues have the autonomy to manage their own working patterns?

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The points by Andy and Philippa are crucial here to ensuring we mitigate those barriers as much as possible.  Andy's point is refreshingly honest - you can't expect people to give you an instant reply, its just not feasible.  There is also a point to be made that in some areas of work, agile working is just not an option.  That's not to say that it will never be an option - there are many tools already available for free that aim to bring distributed teams together.  We've been using Appear.In here in the Lab for the last few weeks and we really like it!  Ultimately though, it comes down to strong leadership and open communication channels.  This way of working won't be successful if you haven't got the right people driving it and embedding it into business culture.

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Work/life balance is a really important topic but whilst treating employees like human beings may seem to be common sense, it is seldom common practice.  Flexible working arrangements require trust and clear standards to truly be successful and whilst many organisations can happily deal with the latter, it is often the former that is missing.  Amy hits the nail on the head in her comment about it meaning different things for different people.  Colleagues know when they need a break but going back to Philippa's early point about leaders, its also about knowing your team members and picking up any warning signs that they might be overdoing it.  It's very easy to spot someone who is being a bit too flexible (read lazy) when it comes to their work as the output just won't be there, but whilst they are very few and far between, its the default position for many policies and procedures on flexible working!  Too much attention is given to the 1% who might abuse it rather than the 99% who would embrace it and this needs to change in designing a service offering that works.  It's much more difficult to spot someone who is taking it too far and on course to crash and burn.  People on the whole enjoy their work and want to do the best they can, so having a little faith and putting trust in them to make the right decisions is key, although make sure there is plenty of support available for those moments of crisis.  

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Trust, communication, openness, clarity - all really important values in creating the right culture for agile working, but by the same token, slow to build and easy to lose.  This way of working does require organisations to be bold and hand over some of the control to their colleagues and that leap of faith can seem difficult but there are huge advantages to those who make it.  Better quality outputs?  You bet.  Increased colleague satisfaction?  Of course.  Ability to make service improvements to customers?  If you adopt a flexible working approach, there is nothing to stop you!  

This is an important point - its not just colleagues who benefit from this approach, your customers do too.  The world is moving beyond 9-5 now and services that fail to keep up die.  Many of our customers are working more flexibly themselves, so we need to make sure we can be there for when they need us, not when we think it is convenient.  A flexible working approach means you can explore a greater range of opportunities.  

As we said before, for the foreseeable future at least, there will be some areas where this style of working just won't work.  Businesses need to adopt the right style for them and their culture, as this is ultimately what will drive it.    I put it to you this way:

You cannot simply change a culture. What you can change are your own behaviours and your influence...

Adopt the right behaviours and the rest should fall into place easily.  

See you guys on 7th June 2018 for the next instalment!  

@ChelleKButler

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