HR · 29 April 2016

The office is dead – long live flexible working

flexible working
The environment in which people perform their best work varies dramatically from individual to individual.

With new research revealing that the majority of UK workers think they’re more productive at home, you can’t afford to ignore flexible working any longer.

Facetime. Slack. WhatsApp. Google Docs. There have never been more tools available to make working with anyone anywhere easy and productive. And, slowly but surely, companies big and small are enthusiastically cottoning on to the idea that you can buy, sell or manage client relationships without actually being in a room with someone.

What is strange is that while so many business owners have adjusted to the idea that you don’t need to be in a room with your client in order to communicate effectively and form a relationship with them, a lot still insist employees sit next to each other for at least eight hours each day – despite the fact many of those hours will be spent working in silence, headphones on to drown out the sound of the open plan office.

When you insist your workers commute for hours to be physically close to you, is it really about communicating? Probably not. At least part of the reason why many company owners want to know where their employees are sitting is to reassure themselves that no one is slacking off – an attitude which is hardly conducive to trust-driven employee engagement. But the fact that working in an office with your team just happens to be the status quo also has a lot to answer for.

That this has come to be the case isn’t down to the need for verbal communications at all, but computers. For much of the last century, the reason people had to be chained to their desks was because enterprise technology was far superior to anything available to people at home. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, the argument that part of Bill Gates’ success as an entrepreneur is down to the fact that he had access to a computer when most people didn’t highlights just how important this once was.

But gone are the days when computers capable of doing calculations filled whole rooms and dialling up to connect to the internet from the desktop took half an hour. The consumerisation of information technology means I can do on my mobile phone in two minutes from a beach what took someone sitting at a desktop in the 1990s hours. The next generation of tech entrepreneurs are learning to code before they even start school.

Because of this, the reality of 21st century society is that we no longer separate our lives into working and non-working components. From checking our email before saying good morning to the person in bed next to us to spending hours each week browsing irrelevant websites at work – it works both ways.

And as work-life balance becomes something to be managed on a minute-by-minute basis, the only way that a business owner can hope to make the most of their people is by trusting them to work out where – and when – they can work best.

The working patterns of my university contemporaries while studying for finals provides a great example of this. One – who achieved a fantastic first-class degree – simply stuck stringently to a 9-5 schedule, with an hour off for lunch in the middle. Today, he’s the only person I know who doesn’t spend more time moaning about his job than actually doing it.

But many of the other academic high-flyers I knew developed really strange working patterns to help them secure marks in the 70s. They turned to anything from polyphasic sleep cycles to private prescriptions for drugs the US military use to stay awake, and one essentially became nocturnal. While I moved permanently into the library, others barely left their rooms.

This only serves to highlight how the environment in which people perform their best work – academic, creative or mathematical – varies dramatically from individual to individual. Putting outdated and arbitrary constraints on talent undermines the time and energy you’ve spent recruiting that talent in the first place, and benefits neither your business nor your employees themselves. So next time you turn down a request for flexible working, ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve.

Don’t know what to do with your new-found freedom to work remotely? Give these exotic co-working spaces a try.

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest from Business Advice.


 
TAGS:

ABOUT THE EXPERT

Hannah Wilkinson is a reporter for Business Advice. She studied economics and management at Oxford University and prior to joining Business Advice wrote for Kensington and Chelsea Today about business and economics – as well as running a tutoring company.

Supply chain