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.

There are 10 comments

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  1. James Dellow

    There probably is some danger for people and organisations that dive into this just because the Olympics is taking place. This is a lot easier if people and managers already have some experience of working this way – even co-located teams can develop some good habits if they work ‘online’, rather than simply via email and document folders. In my experience, the attitude of everyone involved makes a huge difference – this includes those working remotely, managers and also those people still working in an office. Its very much a two-way street.

    • @sharonodea

      The Olympics are providing a strong motivation for organisations who haven’t done so previously to take flexible working ore seriously – the Civil Service is a good example. But I agree, diving into it just for the games is the wrong way to go about it – the organisations and teams who have been working this way already, and who have tried and tested their working methods, are those who are more likely to make a success of it (again, the Cuvil Service is a good example – government departments have been doing trial runs for months in order to work through teething problems ahead of time.

      And attitude is absolutely central. Making a success of flexible working is only partly about technology. Most of us have had that technology for years – the problem is we’ve been failing to use it. That’s now changing – in London the Olympics has forced companies to look at how they make this work.

      I hope this will mark a longer-term shift, as managers and senior leaders realise it can really work. The benefits of a digital workplace are huge – not just for the employee, in terms of work-life balance, but also for companies, in a reduced need for office space and business travel, for example.

  2. Tobias Mitter

    I fully agree. Many prejudices brought forward by managers today only show that key areas of management like professional staffing, skill-development and team motivation are far from being properly developed in many companies. The digital workplace highlights these deficits more clearly than any working environment has been able to before. As awareness for the productivity leap through the digital workplace becomes common-place I believe we will see managers disappear who are not willing to adress their management issues in order to enable digital collaboration.

    • @sharonodea

      Agree wholeheartedly – for London employers, the predictions of TRANSPORT HELL this summer have forced the hand of many reluctant employers. But the economic climate in recent years was already effecting change – in my own company, for example (in financial services), most UK employees work flexibly, working a day or so from home and hot-desking in the office. This is great for me, as the day at home is a day I can fit in a run and avoid the commute, and it’s great for my employer as they’re no longer paying for office space that often sits empty as people travel or attend meetings.

      The economic case for a digital workplace really stacks up; increasingly, senior leaders have come to see that too, and are less tolerant of midddle-management attitudes and practices which fail to support “place-independent” working.

  3. Martin White

    I continue to be surprised how few organisations offer training to managers and participants in how to get the best from virtual team meetings. (Disclaimer – we run training courses on virtual team management). There is now a wealth of advice available on good practice in virtual team management that has been developed over the last four decades. Managers are probably less likely to work in virtual teams than the employees who report to them and so often have little practical understanding of what it takes to create, motivate and evaluate virtual teams, especially when team members are in different countries or working for suppliers, customers or advisors.

    In two very successful global companies I have worked with recently managers need to have an internal certification in virtual team management, and their annual appraisal includes a section on their performance in virtual team management based on feedback from team members.

    • @DigitalJonathan

      Fascinating, forward-thinking approach by those companies Martin.

      I’ve been a telecommuter/homeworker/virtual team member for 10 years, visiting my office once a week or so. After all this time, I think I’ve got it sussed, but it would be good to have my performance certified. I would suspect it helps validate homeworking as a legitimate way to work, rather than as a euphemism for skiving.

  4. Alexis Rodrigo

    Old notions of productivity are based on studies made on people working in factory-like settings performing repetitive tasks. These are no longer applicable in today’s world, where knowledge, creativity and innovation are more valued. At the end of the day, what matters is that we’re able to delivery what is required on time and with acceptable quality of work.

    More and more companies and managers are realizing this, but as you mentioned, some traditionalists still think we’ll goof off if we work at home.

    As someone who’s worked in an office and is now telecommuting, I can say skivers will find a way to avoid work, no matter what the environment (except, perhaps one where their supervisor is breathing down their neck).

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