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?

Make your facilities manager your new best friend

News that Amazon is looking for a new London base has prompted speculation about where they could find offices big enough for their needs, which at 750,000 sq ft, is the largest the capital has seen for 2 years. It raises an interesting question about how much space per employee you need to make a successful work environment. In recent years, the average employee work area in London has fallen from 190 sq ft to 120 sq ft. But does anyone need that much space if increasingly, many of us work quite happily at home with a macbook, a mobile phone and a beanbag?

As prime London commercial rents push £40 a sq ft, most companies are having to take a serious look at how they use space. So many office environments are crammed full of depressingly drab furniture: cupboards and pedestals that store little more than an employee’s food stash and malodorous gym kit;  wall cabinets chock full of out-of-date publications that no-one can be bothered to archive or shred. Even desks are becoming redundant as desktops give way to laptops and desk phones are replaced by smartphones; punching a telephone number into a keypad now seems like so much effort.

Interestingly, the UK legal minimum for office space is a mere 40 square foot per person, which, depending on ceiling height, seems barely enough room to swing a cat. But with more companies adopting enlightened attitudes towards flexible working and hot-desking, 60-80 sq ft per person will become increasingly achievable. Provided that companies think creatively about their environment, this does not need not be at the expense of employee engagement.  Getting rid of all the hideous grey furniture is an opportunity to open up the environment to creative meeting areas and quiet zones with the kind of furniture that people would choose to have in their own homes.

In creating inspirational office spaces for tomorrow’s employees, facilities management and employee engagement professionals should be each other’s new best friends, for the benefit of both employees and shareholders.