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Is flexible working all it’s cracked up to be?

(Image credit: Image Credit: llaszlo / Shutterstock)

Is flexible working all it’s cracked up to be? It’s a question that’s popped up a lot recently, following IBM’s recent “clampdown” on remote working. It’s a valid question. In a world of apps, robots, drones and countless other technological advancements, it’s important to challenge what’s valuable and what isn’t. For this reason, we recently did some research into workers across the globe on the topic of flexible working. There were some interesting findings across the 25,000+ global workers surveyed, but in answer to the question; yes, flexible working is all it’s cracked up to be. If it’s done right.

Anywhere working = Productive working

The most significant finding was an overwhelming 98 per cent of workers saying they’re more productive if they can choose where they work. It’s clear that the days of ‘working anywhere’ equating to ‘chilling at home in front of the TV in your pyjamas’ are over. We’re at a stage where we don’t even have to be glued to our computer waiting for and responding to emails. We’ve got immediate access, wherever we are, to the internet, a phone, a tablet, a conference call, a video call, even content sharing; we’re often just a click away from (virtually) being in the same room as our global team members. 

And better for teamwork…

In fact, working anywhere can build team relationships rather than hinder them. But there’s an ‘if’. The ‘if’ is whether technology plays a part. Nine out of ten workers said technology is a key factor in improving teamwork when working anywhere, and 64 per cent said video specifically improves relationships. 

To add to this, one of my favourite findings; nearly half of us worldwide (me included) consider the tone of our emails more carefully if we’ve spoken to the recipient on video as well. When we speak with someone face-to-face (whether that’s in person or over video), we pick up on body language as well as what people are saying; we get to know the person and their reactions quicker. And so, we anticipate their responses to what we say. I encourage my team to use video at least every now and then, because the knock-on effect is that it adds the ‘human’ part to any form of collaboration. Working anywhere can be as productive for teamwork as being in the same place – if not more productive. If the communication is right, location is irrelevant.   

Unless you’re missing trust  

The observations so far, all point to the same thing; anywhere working is the future of work and it’s already starting to change the way we work, all around the world. There are, however, obstacles to tackle before anywhere working truly becomes accepted. 

For workers, anywhere working triggers one main concern; almost two thirds of workers worry that their colleagues think they’re not working as hard if they’re not in the office. On top of that, they are anxious that they will feel pressured to be ‘always on’ and work longer hours if they embrace flexible working – this concern is particularly acute among older employees.   

So what’s the underlying theme here? It’s trust, or rather a lack thereof – and that’s all part of workplace culture. 

I’m lucky that I work in a company where working anywhere is actively encouraged, and has been for years. It means that trust is intrinsic; we all know we’re being measured on output, not how much face-time we put in at the office. What’s more, we know how to work and be efficient wherever we are. 

Looking at this research, though, I realise that I’ve been taking my situation for granted. Working anywhere is hugely beneficial, but only if you know how to do it. This is harder for companies where flexible working is a newer concept, where perhaps it’s not as common and, consequently, there’s little guidance or understanding about how to do it. 

That’s where we step in. It’s our job as leaders and team members to prevent these worries about working anywhere from becoming obstacles that block both greater happiness for our people and higher productivity for our companies. To do this, we need to instil a culture of trust. 

So how do we build trust?

We asked our respondents what their companies could do to dissipate their fears around anywhere working, and according to 62 per cent of workers, equipping the team with technology that’s easy to use is top of their list. With the right technology, they can connect with colleagues wherever, whenever – becoming part of the team, and not a remote worker who keeps getting forgotten.

Another popular suggestion was to provide guidelines on how to manage anywhere working. This is an important one – if the whole team has the same understanding of what’s expected when they work anywhere, as well as how to do it, the fear of people misunderstanding ‘working anywhere’ is removed. And interestingly, there’s a consensus across all levels of seniority, from entry-level to CEO, that the same policy should be applied to everyone in the business, regardless of their job title or situation. If everyone has the same access to anywhere working, it removes the feeling of being judged or segregated by title – and it makes flexible working more acceptable. After all, if you know your boss is working anywhere, you can feel more secure in doing it yourself.

I’m not criticising what IBM are doing – they may have insights on their employees’ needs that suggest office cubicles, breakout rooms or huddle rooms within an office are better for them. There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ perfect combination of hours, places, positions to work in to be your most productive. But there are definitely approaches that help. Listening to what teams and individuals need to strike the right work-life balance, and taking responsibility to accommodate them is crucial for a healthy, happy workforce – which can only mean a healthy, happy business.

Tim Stone, VP Marketing EMEA, Polycom
Image Credit: llaszlo / Shutterstock