Almost twenty years ago, I had the privilege of hosting an interview with an up-and-coming author called Dan Pink about his book ‘Free Agent Nation’ and the changing shape of the workforce. At the time, the idea of portfolio careers, flexible hours and remote working was bordering on radical. Sadly, it still feels that way.
I’m the MD of Avid Games, a company that develops mobile software. We’re a team of 20, with a mix of ‘makers and managers’ and for the last three years, the entire team has benefitted from flexible hours and remote working. We work when we want, where we want, as long as the job gets done. And yes, the job gets done.
Some employees need to work around their children, some find they’re more productive working at night or the early hours of the morning and everyone prefers not to spend money and time on commuting.
Shifting tastes and embedded attitudes
So the set up seems logical. However, despite a mounting body of evidence that flexible working increases productivity, studies on the negative impact of the ‘open office’, and seismic shifts in communication technology, the norm – which like so many of our counterproductive norms, was set during the Industrial Revolution – remains centred on fixed working hours in a fixed location.
The status quo seems safer – who would reprimand you for sticking with established working practices? – but failure to change is high risk. Flexibility and remote working now outrank salary in terms of employee motivations.
How long do you expect to retain or attract stellar employees if you insist that they commute during an increasingly expensive and over-populated rush hour, just to be co-located with a hundred ticking time-bombs of distraction (a.k.a. ‘colleagues’)? So what drives the resistance to change?
As Adrian Lewis of ActivAbsence says, one “major barrier is that many companies struggle to keep track of employees working flexible hours or remotely and consequently worry productivity will dip if they encourage it.”
A lack of trust?
It’s true. This is the first objection I hear when I raise the prospect of remote working with other employers. It shocks me – and it should shock them. Because what it amounts to is “…but I don’t trust my people”. And if that’s the case, remote working isn’t even close to being the main issue.
Besides, nearly all employers have happily embraced a tacit shift in working contracts over the last two decades: the always-on work culture enabled by smartphones.
Work now spills into evenings and weekends on a regular basis and I have no issue with that. It’s a new working practice brought about by the ‘Information Revolution’, and as such it goes hand in hand with remote working.
The ‘out of hours’ issue
I only consider it unacceptable if an employer says ‘you will be where I say, when I say for 40+ hours per week’, and expects staff to keep in touch out of hours as well.
Employer arguments against remote working are broadly spurious (except in cases such as retail, where a fixed location is self-evidently required). The most compelling case against is that employees want to work in the same place.
In most cases, this is true. But this doesn’t mean they want to work together every day with everyone at once during the same hours. Our solution to this is to have an office that we all attend on Monday (with some long commutes on that one day), to set the week’s agenda, discuss ideas, and get ‘on the same page’.
A flexible office environment
Thereafter, the office is there if people need it. So a sub-team might decide to spend the Thursday thrashing out a new feature, or someone with a disruptive environment at home may work in the office all the time.
Otherwise we use a library of easy-to-use apps and tools to collaborate every bit as effectively as when we all shared an office: Slack (replacing email), Discord (for audio meetings), Trello and JIRA (for task management), CharlieHR (for admin), 15Five (for feedback and reviews), Google Drive (for documents), and so on.
We recently launched an F1 affiliated app called F1 Pack Rivals, for example, and for this immense project, we had to ensure that everyone was working in sync to get the app to the best that it could be and launched to a particular time frame.
It all works very well for now – and ‘for now’ is all any of this is. We haven’t ‘solved’ remote working. While none of us would go back to fixed hours, like all of our working practices, it stays under review because that’s the only way we can get better.
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