Is the digital workplace a ‘skivers paradise’?
Over a year after the UK government launched their campaign to encourage more people to work from home during the Olympics, London Mayor Boris Johnson has gone decidedly off-message. In a speech to Olympic workers last week, he derided home working during the games as a ‘skivers paradise’:
“We all know that is basically sitting wondering whether to go down to the fridge to hack off that bit of cheese before checking your emails again.”
His speech angered Transport for London – who’ve spent millions trying to persuade one-third of Londoners to work from home during the Olympics – and was widely criticised by intranet and digital workplace specialists. Boris isn’t alone, many other managers and Executives hold this view; working from home is like a holiday. But this view is slowly becoming the minority and more and more organisations are seeing the benefits of a digital workplace.
In 2005 (when London was awarded the Games) the concept of the digital workplace – with employees accessing essential information and services online – was a reality in just a tiny handful of companies. But as the costs of technology have fallen, the quality of social platforms vastly improved, and senior management attitudes have changed, many firms are proving this old style of thinking wrong by making a success of flexible working using social and collaborative tools.
Products like Sharepoint have come on leaps and bounds since 2005, while a host of new entrants to the market have pushed workplace technology innovation forward at a remarkable rate. Although secure, reliable and usable technology is an important element of a successful digital workplace, technology is not itself a panacea; to make it work you need the right policies and processes in place too.
Here, Team Intranetizen offer their top five tips for making a success of flexible working.
1. Ensure people can access the resources they need
If employees have access to all the data, documents and services they need, there’s no reason why homeworking and flexible working hours can’t be just as productive as working in an office can. This requires a bit of planning, and a process of trial and error; often you don’t realise you’re missing something until you try to access it.
Don’t wait to test it with a major event, like the Olympics; do at least one trial run to test your equipment and identify any barriers. Or, better yet, don’t rely on an event to force your organisation to implement flexible working. It’s 2012; the time is now!
2. Agree how decisions can be made
Too often home working plans focus on tasks people can usefully do alone. This is all well and good for the odd day here and there (indeed, one of the most frequently-cited benefits of working from home is the ability to get one’s head down away from the noise and distractions of an open-plan office), but if you’re looking at extended periods of home working, this isn’t going to be enough. You’ll need to think about how you’ll review workloads, manage projects and make decisions without meeting face-to-face.
David McComb, of Blackthorn Communications said, “I run a magazine working with a small team of home-based freelancers. We used to all work together in a noisy, open-plan office where we’d simply gather round someone’s desk to make a decisions. But now we’ve got an entirely digital workplace setup, using a selection of low-priced tools to manage workflow, store documents and plan future issues. Using platforms such as Trello, Dropbox and Google Docs we can share desktops, ask for feedback on layouts or pictures, and work collaboratively on documents, so decisions get made just as quickly as they would if we were physically in the same office.”
3. Trust your team
Remote working is still highly controversial for some managers (including, it seems, Boris Johnson). They wonder if they can really trust their team members to motivate themselves to work at home? How will remote and flexible working be tracked? And are people really as productive from home?
If you, as a manager, have to ask these questions, then your team has some bigger issues. If you have a professional, skilled and motivated team, you should be able to trust them to work productively and efficiently wherever they might be.
This trust works both ways: Often, a team will work harder from home than they do in the office, for instance by working longer than their contracted hours. Trust employees and give them the autonomy to get on with their work, and they will replay you in discretionary effort and loyalty.
4. As the old adage goes, fail to plan and you plan to fail
In the physical workplace, you can pick up what others are doing almost by osmosis – a chat by the kettle, an overheard phone call. This just doesn’t happen in the digital workplace, so you’ll need to find ways of sharing what you’re all up to, especially if you’re working on joint projects and trying to meet deadlines. There are a host of online project planning tools available so you can share project plans and to-do lists – but this could be as simple as a round-robin email.
In virtual meetings it’s even more important to be prepared in advance with technology, agenda and ensuring the right participants are in the meeting. Test in advance and know how to effectively use the technology to run a meeting and be sure to share essential documents ahead of time so you don’t all sit there on the phone reading the papers.
5. Make time for downtime
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Watercooler chat might not seem like an immediately productive activity, but this is the type of conversation which helps to build effective teams.
McComb commented, “Working from home, alone, can be quite isolating, so my team uses iChat to keep in touch, ask questions or just make jokes. We try and video chat at least once a day too – we’ll coordinate our tea breaks so we can sit down for a brew and a natter. I don’t see that time as unproductive – it’s what makes us feel like a real team.”
With the Games now just three weeks away, London-based companies are gearing up for the biggest experiment in remote working ever tried. Those who have planned, tested and implemented flexible and remote working practices are best placed to make a real success of it – and that could mark a permanent shift in employment patterns, as more companies realise the benefits of the digital workplace. Even if your company isn’t based in London, it’s an experiment you will want to follow and learn from for the benefit of your digital workplace.