Adapting to flexible working

How well does your organisation manage flexible working? Does your strategy drive engagement by allowing employees to define their own work life balance? Or is it perceived as a sneaky way to cut costs while extending the effective working day to include all waking hours?

This week I took part in a workshop at Comma Partners on how virtual working and globalisation of business affects employee engagement. Michelle Pattison presented an absorbing case study about Unilever’s agile working strategy.

The Unilever approach aims to maximise flexibility and minimise constraints for the business by aligning the three key enablers of technology, workplaces and working practices. When it works, the benefits are diverse and transformational. As well as achieving cost savings on property, travel, and associated environmental benefits, agile working boosts capability by enabling global, virtual teams to collaborate effectively and increases resilience against business continuity risks. Agile working also promotes diversity, by enabling people to choose how they manage their work life balance and can be a powerful recruitment and retention tool – as demonstrated in this Unilever careers video.

During the discussion, a number of themes emerged for how to engage employees positively about adopting flexible work practices. Everyone agreed that getting leaders to ‘walk the talk’ is fundamental. It’s difficult to get employees to hot desk if their leaders retreat into private offices. Similarly, travel bans provoke resentment when leaders still choose to globe trot in the company jet.

Another major concern was how companies protect their employees from burnout. Hardworking, ambitious employees in highly competitive, global companies can easily find themselves working 12 hour days over an 18 hour window. Managers must be alert to their team members work patterns to guard against creeping workaholism.

For a communicator, flexible working has its own particular challenges. How can you engage people face to face when they rarely come into the office? This is a subject close to my own heart, having pioneered the use of video-conference technology as an engagement tool at eBay Europe with the innovative and award winning European Team Brief. In the same way that Saturday night TV has staged a comeback in the UK against an industry trend towards ‘on demand’ viewing, so communicators must stage ‘you just gotta be there’ experiences to bring employees together. It’s all about creating a buzz so that employees feel they’re missing out if they don’t get the live experience.

As a final point, I believe that virtual working is great for established teams, but you also need to consider how to build new teams and onboard new members. Working as a contractor, I rely upon being able to rapidly establish my internal network in order to become effective. Achieving that in an environment where people rarely visit the office becomes a big challenge. If you don’t thinks that’s a problem in your organisation, ask yourself when you last went into the office solely for an induction meeting with a recent joiner?

When the music stops…

Two young people barged past me to get on the train this morning. Result? I was the one person who didn’t get a seat on my carriage. As I stood fuming on the increasingly crowded train into London, I reflected on how the games we play as children prepare us for life. Musical chairs was the example that sprung instantly to mind. As a child, I never understood its appeal. Even then it seemed a dull game, prone to all kinds of despicable, cheating behaviour. Since becoming a parent, I’ve experienced it from the other side, when it’s been my finger on the mute button. At my kids’ birthday parties, it somehow fell to me to supervise the games before the little playmates went home. This was usually after the conjurer had packed away his wand, leaving a room full of hyperactive kids overdosing on sugar and e-additives, while the Mums drank wine in the kitchen and laughed at my incompetence. Happy days.

The kids I wanted to win the game were always the first to be eliminated. They’d be the ones who got so into the zone with their zany dancing that when the music stopped, they didn’t know what planet they were on. Finding a chair to sit on was the last thing on their mind. Maybe I could keep them in the game for a while with a well intentioned ‘OK kids, that was just a practice round’.  But after the third practice round, you couldn’t protect them any longer, the crazy kid had to go. The ones I always had it in for were those who made no real attempt to dance. Instead they would jiggle around a bit, hopping from one leg to the other while hovering no more than six inches from their target chair, their beady gaze locked like a laser beam on my trigger finger.  I found the only way to deal with such kids was to distract them by calling out their name or throwing them a sweet, just as I stopped the music. Then there were the kids who refused to accept they were out of the game. Who kept popping up again and causing mayhem because all of a sudden there’s two kids without a chair. The outcome of  all this?  One kid clutching a prize feeling mighty pleased with themselves, a handful of other kids protesting about perceived (or actual) unfairness and the rest busy destroying the house.

The time when musical chairs comes into its own as a metaphor is during organisational change. The kids I describe above all have their grown up equivalents. The likeable oddball who is so away with the fairies that he hasn’t a hope of ending up with a role and you wonder how he will ever survive in the big world. Or the born survivor who is  so determined to keep hold of their seat that anyone who even looks at it risks having their eyes gouged out. Then there’s ‘everyone else’.

In my experience, the one essential element for communicating organisational change successfully is to create a completely fair and open process. If people get the slightest sense that the process is not fair, it can do lasting damage to an organisation that only a future change of leadership can fully repair. Being transparent means exactly that. As I heard the global HR Director of a major corporate say recently, the thing about opening the curtain is that you have to be pretty sure you know what’s behind it first. So in the example of my dismal attempt at organising a party game, it would be no good telling little Johnny that he didn’t sit down on the chair first, when the real reason was that I was  teaching him a lesson for being so greedy and that it was someone else’s turn to win for a change.

The interesting thing about this little story is that if I hadn’t been deprived of my seat today by pushy commuters, I wouldn’t have thought about any of this. Which proves the other rule of change management, that from personal adversity springs fresh insight and opportunity!

My journey to work courtesy of South West Trains

A mysterious package arrives

When our postman rang the doorbell, it wasn’t because he needed a signature for the package he was delivering. “I hope you don’t mind me asking,” he said slightly sheepishly, “but everyone at the sorting office is dying to know what’s in your parcel.”  When he handed over the bizarrely shaped package, I realised why it had attracted such curiosity for a team that every day handles thousands of rectangular, cuboid objects.

From his keen interest, I suspected that money might be riding on the outcome. “What’s the current favourite theory?”, I asked. “Well,” he said, stroking his chin, “Most people think it’s a garden rake or a kite, but I don’t think it’s either.”  “Both good guesses, but you’re right,” I replied, ripping open the package to reveal the pair of prawn nets that I’d bought on eBay as Christmas presents, ready for next season’s shrimping expeditions in Pembrokeshire. Our friendly postie was so delighted that he couldn’t get in his van quick enough to report back the news.

I was tickled by the idea of a team of sorters at the post office who brighten their working day by guessing the contents of packages, then sending someone on a heroic quest to discover the truth. How refreshing and inspiring also to come across a team that finds its own way to connect with its customers.

One of my observations about organisations is that no matter what else is going on in the business, good managers will always find creative ways to raise team morale. Walk around a call centre and look at what’s on the boards and walls. You can usually spot the highest performing teams, because they’ll be the ones who’ve created their own vibrant micro-culture based on the team’s personalities and targets.

It’s one of my fundamental beliefs that a sustainable  employee engagement strategy has to support and reinforce the positive relationships that already exist between managers and teams. Campaigns that attempt to reach employees directly, bypassing their managers, tend to be short-lived. Why is that?  Simply because real culture exists at the team level. Anyone who regularly reads pulse surveys will know that engaged employees usually give the highest rating to their immediate team. As employee engagement professionals, we need to work with that trend, not against it.