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How to avoid the pitfalls of flexibility


Colin Stuart discusses how to train staff to avoid the isolation commonly associated with remote working.

It’s no wonder that the Britain has embraced agile working. Employees that work flexibly are more productive, cost less to employ, take fewer sick days and are more likely to remain with the company. Furthermore, an agile working approach lowers energy costs and reduces space requirements thus increasing the business bottom line. 

With an estimated number of home workers now reaching over four million, the benefits of flexible working have become clear to both businesses and employees.

However, despite the undeniable advantages of agile working, implementing a new policy is not entirely risk free. Without the right training, tools and a complete reassessment of management methods, staff can quickly face a sense of isolation and a loss of morale, leading to underachievement and a complete lack of team cohesion. Addressing the issues they face with a few basic steps can however, lead to a strong, productive and well-connected team.

Making the first step

Before you even begin to prepare staff for their new approach to agile working, it’s critical that you assess exactly what agile working means to your business i.e. the level of flexibility or agility you plan to introduce. For example, it may be that staff members are practising agile working within their main office, across a range of company offices based in various regional locations, or they may simply be working from home on either a formal or ad-hoc basis. Identifying the level of agility and regularity of lone working for each member of staff will dictate how best to approach the training most appropriate to their working life. 

Isolation - managing communication

The most commonly cited disadvantage to working remotely is isolation. The key here is to maintain regular communication by ensuring line managers receive the appropriate training to keep remote working staff both connected and supported by their team and colleagues. 

This can be done by training both managers and staff to use the many tools that enable teams to maintain good levels of contact and interaction, such as instant messaging, video conferencing, team intranet pages and various social media applications that are business orientated. 

It is imperative however, that line managers do not use such tools to simply make regular ‘check-ups’, causing workers to feel like they are being watched or assessed. 

Trust is a critical link in the relationship between manager and remote worker and without this, team cohesion will most certainly collapse. Managers need to learn to manage by output rather than the clock and must approach remote communication in a much more supportive and collaborative manner, assisting and encouraging staff in their tasks, making themselves available without pestering for updates or demanding constant commentary on activity. 

Providing the right tools

There are a host of online secure collaboration platforms that facilitate this form of interaction such as Huddle and Yammer. These act as a network of workspaces where staff can communicate, share and store files, collaborate, comment on documents, contribute to ideas and manage projects with colleagues, clients, partners or suppliers. These platforms can be incredibly effective in filling the communication gap that remote working creates, providing an online alternative to approaching a colleague for their advice, or for contribution or collaboration on a project or task.

Using desktop video-conferencing (like Skype) or voice communication (the traditional telephone) should be encouraged, as it is a much more positive and engaging experience than email, which can often lead to misunderstanding and conflict as well as severely clogging up in-boxes.

Understanding presence and availability

When staff communicate remotely, it is also important to remember that there is a vast diversity of both personalities and working behaviours. Some people may (when working) prefer not to be disturbed, others may work irregular hours due to travel, or may be in and out of meetings. Having a close understanding of a colleagues’ presence and preferences will lead to a more open form of communication. 

To gain a stronger understanding of team presence, connectivity and availability, you may wish to make fundamental changes to your entire IT platform by introducing a product such as Microsoft Lync. This delivers a streamlined communications package that manages everything including voicemail, instant messaging, Outlook, VoIP, video and web conferencing. 

These platforms focus heavily on a user’s presence and can instantly provide details regarding any remote worker’s availability, location and current activity. They are able to sync with a user’s calendar to give more detailed info on their status and location. Training staff to use such platforms will provide managers with a more effective method of communicating, helping everyone to effortlessly connect. 

Encouraging regular face-to-face interaction

Whilst there are a number of tools to keep staff well connected, maintaining an element of face-to-face interaction is still critical in achieving a productive balance. Holding regular team meetings in the office is a good way to encourage routine gatherings. Arranging fortnightly or monthly social events are also good ways to top-up the interaction that is lost when communicating via a screen, such as humorous interaction, incidental conversation, and the informal chat that is less likely to occur over instant messages. 

Your central office environment should also be designed to attract remote working staff back to the office by providing appropriate workspaces that staff actually want to return to. These spaces should cater well for the remote worker who wishes to use the office on an ad-hoc basis, which can be achieved by providing open desk policies and activity-based environments. Lockers for personal items can be installed or portable boxes such as ‘HotBoxes’ can be distributed to easily move files and items, making the office a more agile environment. 

Collaboration spaces or café-style hubs also encourage agile workers to easily enter the office, congregate, and use the space depending on the task at hand. This may be for collaboration, impromptu meetings, or working alone (or in pairs) in quieter environments. A space that caters well for the transient worker will certainly encourage their presence on a more regular basis, helping to avoid long spells of isolation. 

Colin Stuart is the managing director and founder of workplace consultancy Baker Stuart

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Colin Stuart


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