Opinion: ending clock watching

Monday, 01 September 2014


    Don’t be weighed down by conventional workplace practices. Jodie Baker says an agile working model will allow your organisation to stay ahead in the future.

    Technology is fundamentally changing the way employees do their jobs. The challenge for all companies is to harness IT changes for enhanced productivity and cost savings without compromising on customer delivery. There is a growing global trend towards “agile work” which enables employees to work anywhere, anytime and differs from the traditional work model which is based on valuing the time spent by an employee physically present in the office.

    Agile work does not dismiss or trivialise the importance of face time or meetings held in person for team collaboration. It does, however, empower employees to determine for themselves their most productive hours or location and ultimately drive their own productivity.

    Agile work is not simply a “work from home” model or the rollout of activity-based working (open plan offices where employees are not assigned a fixed work station). It is about autonomy and empowerment; employees are measured (and paid) by their outputs, not for the input of hours spent in the office (or anywhere).

    As companies (and their boards) increasingly look to “do more with less” many allow – or even expect – employees to work from home in addition to official office hours. This is not the same as empowering employees to determine for themselves where and how work will be completed. Employees thrive on empowerment, and the management techniques in the agile work model shift away from control towards trust and motivation to deliver results. However, human beings need to stay connected in order to operate effectively as a team and most of us thrive on human contact and collaboration. The companies successfully implementing agile work recognise that it is essential to allow (and encourage) regular face-to-face experiences to build trust between team members and clients.

    In their book Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work, Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson note that the key benefits include higher productivity, cost savings and increased sales. Drawbacks and risks around isolation or staff flexibility to suit client needs must be addressed by a shift in management style from direction towards engagement. Agile working improves productivity by:

    • Ending a culture of “always on” in favour of highly productive hours of being plugged in.
    • Encouraging more creative solutions, delivered as a result of greater empowerment;
    • Reducing office interruptions so that staff can focus and improve delivery times.
    • Offering time savings via lower commute times and employees to better integrate their commitments.

    The agile work model offers three significant cost savings to companies. First, reducing office space (and related costs) by facilitating work from other locations can deliver significant savings. Second, enhanced engagement, work/life balance and work satisfaction of employees reduces costly staff turnover and acts as a key differentiator to retain key talent. Third, through improved technology, teams can collaborate online in real-time, cutting down the need for business travel. These tools cannot completely replace the need for face-to-face meetings, but can limit the regularity with which they need to occur.

    There is an underlying and sometimes unspoken perception that if employees work in an agile model, client outcomes suffer. This is incorrect. Clients do not value time put into a product or service, but value the outcome delivered to them. Inputs, or long hours of face time (whether productive or unproductive) are not something from which a client derives value and often these costs are passed on through hourly-based billing. Aligning employee interests (and key performance indicators) with client value ensures that client satisfaction for an appropriate value is maximised.

    Sitting hand in glove with aligning client outcomes is the level of collaboration between employees and clients. Where employees are empowered and responsible for this relationship, they are given the freedom to be more creative and responsive to clients’ requirements and to work in a manner which mirrors their needs.

    So what is needed for successful implementation of this new work model? Implementing agile work starts with cultural change and must have the support of the board and executive leadership team. People thrive when they are trusted to be autonomous and take responsibility for their own output. They work at their best when they make informed, intelligent decisions about when (and where) they are most productive. Outcomes-based appraisal of staff is a key element of this cultural change and implementation of agile work and becomes the focus of employee success, rather than how many hours each individual has spent in the office.

    Finally, successful implementation of agile work includes leveraging technology and creating fully integrated mobility so employees are equipped with the tools they need to do their job, from any location or time of day. Staff need the right communication tools (phone and video access), multi-location printing capabilities (or a genuine attempt to to be paperless) and appropriate IT hardware to work effectively.

    Face time provides reassurance to managers that their employees are physically present, but does not guarantee that they are engaged intellectually to deliver the best outcomes to their clients. Undoubtedly, collaboration requires regular meeting of the minds and face-to-face interaction is important for building teams, trust and culture. Beyond that, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that working practices are ripe for a re-think and that agile working should be treated as “a business strategy, not a human resources policy”.

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