How to manage flexible workers

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Thanks to the Internet and mobile technology, for many people work is purely an activity, and one that can be performed at any time from almost any location.

This has many potential benefits for both workers and employers, but it also poses a challenge to conventional management practices.

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How to manage flexible workers

  1. 1. T here was a time when “work” was a physical location – an office, a factory or a shop. Now, thanks to the Internet and mobile technology, for many people work is purely an activity, and one that can be performed at any time from almost any location. This has many potential benefits for both workers and employers, but it also poses a challenge to conventional management practices. In particular, how should businesses monitor the performance of their employees when they are not physically present? One common concern is that without the professional atmosphere of the workplace, home and remote workers will be easily distracted and productivity will drop. However, many companies are finding that by forcing teams and their managers to focus on metrics that measure their output, rather than simply their presence, remote working can be a force for engagement and motivation. One example is the IT department at builders’ merchant Travis Perkins, where employees are allowed to work either in the office or at home however they see fit, as long they get their work done. This approach is aided in part by the fact that the company’s IT project teams use an Agile methodology (the Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe, to be precise). This means that they produce working software every two weeks and receive immediate feedback from their colleagues in other parts of the business. According to JJ Van Oosten, the group’s chief information officer, adopting the SAFe framework has established a steady rhythm of delivery every two weeks. Within a two-week sprint, employees are free to work exactly as theywish.Indeed,theyareencouragedtofindtheworkingarrangement that suits them best. However, they are acutely aware of the work they are expected to deliver at the end of the sprint, according to Mr Van Oosten. This approach is better suited to the lifestyles of Travis Perkins employees than the traditional nine-to-five, Mr Van Oosten says, especially for those with young children. And it has dramatically improved productivity. “Our productivity has shot up by over 100%,” he says. A recent project to build a mobile website for a client, which would have taken months to complete before the introduction of the new working style, took mere weeks, Mr Van Oosten explains. Meetings are also more productive, he says, as attendees spend less time ascertaining who is doing what and focus instead on taking decisions. The average length of time for a meeting has dropped from 60 minutes to 15. As for management metrics, Mr Van Oosten uses an unusual measure to gauge the engagement of his workforce. Despite the fact that employees can work more flexibly, he says, “noise in the office has increased from 38 decibels to over 70 decibels”. This tells Mr Van Oosten that his teams are happier, he says. “Laughter is a good ingredient of an everyday, successful business.” Measure of success What the example of Travis Perkins arguably shows is that in order for remote and flexible working to be beneficial, the structure and river of work must be explicit. The same goes for performance metrics, says Sally Cornall, head of human resources at online recruitment specialist reed.co.uk. She believes that as employers increasingly support remote working, the metrics by which employee performance is judged and the outputs which they are expected to deliver must become more visible. Furthermore, those metrics and outputs must be incorporated into employees’ training and career development programmes, lest they fall foul of being “out of sight, out of mind”. In short, she argues that a more flexible working environment calls for more explicit and regular feedback for employees, whether it is quantitative or qualitative. Firm targets Why flexible working calls for structured management Written by The Economist Intelligence Unit Sponsored by:
  2. 2. “Our team members receive regular feedback on the achievement of their personal goals and objectives,” says Ms Cornall. “In many cases, this performance can be measured systematically, both quantitatively and qualitatively. “For instance, we measure the performance of our sales team against financial targets and activity that is recorded automatically, and we give continuous training and development by referring to recorded calls,” she says. “This benefits training, development and future objective setting. All of these metrics can be used both locally and remotely.” Of course, another aspect of engaging with one’s work is the social dimension. A recently completed survey by reed.co.uk found that 77% of employees believe the people they work with are essential or very important to their job satisfaction – ranking higher even than salary. Matt Ridley, the company’s chief information officer, warns that this social interaction must not be lost in the move to more flexible working patterns. “Technology needs to augment, not disrupt, these personal relationships,” says Mr Ridley, who believes digital technology offers plenty of opportunities for interaction at a distance. Indeed, mobile and social technologies can play a vital part in bringing disparate parts of the organisation together. Yet as employees reap the benefits of technology by working more remotely and more flexibly, their managers must make sure that the unspoken benefits of a physical workplace – including a shared pace of work, immediate feedback and social interaction – are replaced with structured alternatives.

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