Why flexible working relies on trust and an ‘outcomes’ focus

I was reading an article last month about a creative agency, Potato that has ditched the traditional nine to five model. There are no fixed working hours and staff are allowed to turn up and leave work whatever time they like – as long as the work gets done.

In this article the Chief Executive of the business, Jason Cartwright, commented: “We work on the basis that creative, complex work just doesn’t fit nicely into the nine to five mould, and the same is true for the 40-hour work week.

"Instead, we give our teams the responsibility of managing their time, believing that they are the best judges of the time that needs to be put in to achieve the best result on a project. By opening up the working day, we can cater to people’s workplace idiosyncrasies to let them do what feels right rather than what a company policy says is right.”

As a result, Potato says that it has significantly improved staff retention and importantly its turnover. This got me thinking about how much the workplace and organisations have changed in the last few years, largely as a result of the mobile revolution. Now employees can work just about anywhere and the traditional structures and ways of working are debatable. At the same time, I also wonder how conducive it really is to have us all working from home or ‘on the go’ as we travel from one client meeting to another. How much is gained versus what is lost in the process?

We are often told that organisations need to be increasingly agile especially in what is described as the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment in which we operate today. One of the ways in which many companies have responded is by introducing flexible working. This can have many dimensions, perhaps not as extreme as the Potato example, but that includes contract flexibility (i.e. annual hours or specific time only contracts), time flexibility (i.e. no or limited core hours with staff able to flex their time during a day or week), and location flexibility (i.e. the ability to work in a range of locations both within the organisation’s buildings and beyond).

Technology also plays a big part. The mobile revolution, smartphones and devices have enabled this ‘anywhere, anytime’ working pattern. And facilities like video conferencing, teleconferencing and telepresence are more commonplace now.

That said, when considering flexible working all organisations need to think through the approach and both the upsides and downsides and ensure that the practices and contracts you put in place will work. I recently heard of another organisation that implemented a working from home policy. In all their contracts employees were based from home and staff were paid expenses to either travel into the offices around the country or to customer sites and so on. Unfortunately, the company then put a ban on travel and employees were unable to leave home, unless they paid for the travel themselves, which is a ridiculous scenario.

The latest Thames Valley Business Barometer, a six-monthly survey that measures economic confidence in the region, also had a focus on flexible working. DAV was involved in the survey as a panel member. Of the 100+ companies surveyed, 75 per cent have a flexible working policy in place, while a quarter don’t and are not looking to implement one. This is probably because they either run shift patterns or are so customer focused that it would be very hard to implement. In terms of barriers to flexible working the frequent ones cited were around trust, culture, evaluating productivity and being able to cover core hours, all of which resonates with me. For the virtual team model to work I believe there has to be an enormous amount of trust between both parties. The deliverable, or how you rate performance, needs to be focused on outcomes rather than time spent at desk. And of course regular, anecdotal or formal feedback loops between employees and employer need to be factored in and, where possible, relevant inputs from clients.

Flexible working offers a lot of upsides such as improvements to staff retention. It can also make the organisation more attractive from a recruitment perspective and it can increase productivity. The downsides, however, are around management and control, maintaining culture, ensuring you have the right processes, controls and contracts in place and that you have thought through how staff will be motivated and, perhaps most importantly, whether the new environment is conducive to collaboration – a critical factor in the innovation process that sets market leading businesses apart.

We face similar challenges at DAV, where our consultants, be they employees (as they were in the past), or independent associates (who comprise our delivery model today), spend the majority of their working time at client locations around the world. To support this, we work hard to create a sense of community, maintaining regular touch points and making virtual support available across the extended team, where and when it’s needed. This ‘virtual’ team structure works for us due to the calibre and experience of our associates and the relationships we have formed, based on trust, integrity and hard work. I believe it’s these three elements that make or break any flexible working model.

There’s no doubt that the world of work is radically changing and finding ways to keep the productivity, synergy and enthusiasm of the team together will need to be looked at in different ways. The challenge for many organisations will be around things like, how to replace those water cooler moments, when the ebb and flow of the day’s happenings are chatted through in a relaxed and informal setting, but above all it’s how to maintain those levels of trust between all parties.

These things are so much harder but not impossible to replicate with a virtual team and does need to be considered thoroughly as we move into new mobile working patterns of the future.

Andrew Moore, COO, DAV Management

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