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Is your workplace ready for remote and flexible work?

By Melissa Campeau

Right now, someone is riding a commuter train and buying groceries on a smartphone. Someone else is streaming a podcast while sitting in a park, and yet another person is checking work emails while sitting on a plane.

In the past few decades, technology has taught us we can do anything, from anywhere. It’s not surprising, then, that growing numbers of people are looking to apply that anything-from-anywhere sensibility to their jobs, as well, with flexible and remote working options.

The 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce Survey (by Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs) found 80 to 90 per cent of the U.S. workforce says they would like to telework at least part of the time. In theory, they could: the survey also found 50 per cent of the workforce holds a job that’s compatible with at least partial telework.

If individuals have embraced the idea of mobile and remote work quickly, organizations have taken a little longer, given that its integration can raise as many questions as it answers. Change, though, seems inevitable. A Forbes magazine article from this past summer, for example, named cloud technology (and its ability, among other things, to facilitate on-the-go work) as the biggest disruptor to today’s businesses, and in an article titled “Top Human Resource Trends of the Decade,” points out, “No generation has even ever been this connected.”

The list of companies finding ways to take advantage of mobility and offer flexible and remote working options is growing, but it’s still a short one. Even with 40 per cent growth over the past five years, just seven per cent of all employers offer flexible work options. It might be because they’re not prepared for change: A recent study by Grand & Toy indicated that only 5 per cent of small and medium-sized businesses are well on their way to adapting to the changing demands within Canadian workplaces.

“If you’re trying to become multi-channel with your customers and you become multi-channel with your employees, imagine how much better employees will get at communicating with your customers.” – Stephen Harrington

Pressure from all sides

Even with so few organizations offering flexible work arrangements, change from several directions supports its adoption, including the very nature of our work.

“We’re moving more and more into a knowledge economy and needing less equipment to do our work – often just laptops and phones,” said Brie Weiler Reynolds, senior career specialist at FlexJobs.

Millennials – who grew up with mobile technology – now make up the largest segment of workforce, and the oldest among them are beginning to move into leadership roles.

“The expectation with employees of this generation is that flexible work is a standard business procedure rather than just an occasional perk,” said Weiler Reynolds.

In some ways, employers have been laying the groundwork for remote and flexible work for years – although not necessarily with that end in mind.

“For the past 10 or 15 years, employers have expected employees to be available 24/7, to check emails at night and to work remotely even if that’s not what they’ve been calling it,” said Weiler Reynolds. “That kind of casual remote and flexible work that employers have been pushing has now started to turn and employees are saying, ‘I would like to work this way, but have more control over when I do it, rather than being on call all day, every day.’”

Also in the pro column for remote and flexible work options: They can save businesses a great deal of money.

“We’re seeing more and more organizations realizing that while their real estate footprint is a fixed cost, it’s one they can begin to manage if they allow this trend to take hold,” said Stephen Harrington, national lead, Talent Strategy at Deloitte in Canada. “That’s a really important driver.”

Research by Global Workplace Analytics’ finds that if workers with compatible jobs and a desire to work from home did so just half the time, U.S. businesses would save more than $700 billion annually. Broken down, this totals an annual savings of $11,000 per employee for each business, and between $2,000 and $7,000 for each telecommuter.

Modern performance management

Organizations, though, often resist the idea. For one thing, business leaders may struggle to understand how they can manage a team that’s working in multiple locations, at different times during the day.

It may be a common concern, but as Weiler Reynolds points out, work has been evolving to be less about where someone goes every day and for how long, and more about what they’re dong every day and what they’ve accomplished.

“This is something HR will have a hand in,” said Weiler Reynolds. “Managerial practices have to move out of that 20th century mindset that everyone is in the office and you can physically see your employees working. Essentially, management has to rely a lot less on face time and seeing someone working, and more on results, and managers also have to understand how employees get to a result, whether that’s the best series of actions to get to that result, and whether that process can be more effective.”

“Managers can’t sit back and wait to see problems popping up or wait for employees to come to them. They can’t wait until they can physically see someone struggling in their cubicle. Instead, they have to reach out and ask how things are going, where people are struggling, what’s causing the problems and what is unclear.” – Brie Weiler Reynolds

To some degree, performance can boil down to ensuring that employees understand exactly what’s expected of them, and managers know what results to anticipate from employees.

“This may seem overly simplistic, but it’s so true,” said Dr. Melanie Peacock, associate professor at Mount Royal University. “In my 30 years in HR, I’ve found – if you really dig down – problems with performance often come down to a lack of understanding about roles. If we use roles, rather than job descriptions, then people can more reasonably use flexible hours and remote working because they understand what it is that needs to get done. Then as long as managers have strong connections with employees, they can use those for performance management.”

One size fits all?

Of course, flexible hours and remote work won’t suit every team in every organization. A Deloitte report from a few years ago found three distinct workplace strategies in the market, says Harrington.

“There were some organizations on the fringe that were trying to push virtual as far as they could, trying to diminish the size of their head office as much as possible and distribute people as widely as they could,” he said. “For the organizations that are doing that, hopefully their customers are benefiting as much as they can, their employees are benefiting, their culture supports it, and it all lines up.”

Office manager in the age of remote workers

More remote and flexible workers can mean a change in responsibilities for certain traditional roles.

Some positions like office manager may seem extinct, at first glance, but it’s really a role that’s evolving as needs do,” said Dr. Melanie Peacock, associate professor at Mount Royal University. “The office manager role has gone from being administrative to being strategic. If remote and flexible workers are spokes in a wheel, then an office manager is the hub of that wheel, keeping everyone connected and in sync.

Office managers become the conduit for those with flexible hours or working in remote locations, and as key contact, wield great influence.

“In many ways, that person is HR,” said Peacock. “Of course, HR professionals have a deep expertise and they lead in this area, but the people leading, managing and coordinating the business are also HR, so the office manager becomes a much more strategic position with stronger ties to HR.

On the other end of the spectrum, says Harrington, some companies were convinced of the value of face-to-face interactions for their organizations.

“Maybe they’re in the business of innovation or maybe their bigger customers come to them; either way, they’ve decided they’re going to completely buck the remote working trend, but with intention,” he said. “Those are the two extremes, but we think many organizations are going to fit somewhere in the middle and they’re going to be a hybrid of campus, an amazing place to work when you come in, and virtually, a workplace that gives you flexibility.”

While he predicts a hybrid workplace will be the most common model, Harrington points out it might also be the most difficult to successfully build.

“An organization will really have to break down the segments of its workforce by the kind of activity they do and the way they work, and then figure out the best design for the workplace that’s going to engage them,” said Harrington. “There’s still this impulse for organizations to build a workplace with one design for everybody, as opposed to thinking deeply about segments.”

Organizations need to keep in mind, of course, that many employees thrive in a bricks-and-mortar workplace.

“Some people don’t want work from home. They like the buzz of the office and they like being around people,” said Weiler Reynolds. “It’s important to actually ask employees what types of flexible work policies they would prefer if they could choose – not that they’re necessarily going to get what they would want – but to help craft that policy. Maybe only 45 per cent of your employees would be interested in remote work, but 75 per cent would like a more flexible schedule.”

It takes a careful, thoughtful process to determine the right mix – or whether or not to have a mix at all – for each segment, team and individual.

“Every company is starting from a different place with this,” said Weiler Reynolds. “Some have many remote and flexible workers and formalized policies, and some have none. For companies thinking about this and thinking how to turn it into a more formal policy, it can be a very incremental process. It actually works better for HR to just do it a little bit at time. Think about which types of flexibility really fit with the company culture and business strategy and goals, and then implement that incrementally one team at a time and refine it as you go.”

Question of culture

In terms of culture, remote and flexible workers shouldn’t be an obstacle, but rather an element of that culture.

“I think HR needs to partner with senior leadership to understand what kind of culture they want to have, then try to understand the workplace strategy, not just about remote work, but in general – the workplace itself, and how shall we design it?” said Harrington. Culture is then baked into everything the company does, including its mix of workers and how managers connect with and lead them.

Engagement and communication

In support of culture and engagement, strong communication becomes even more essential. Managing remote workers, for example, involves being proactive and addressing potential problem areas before they take root.

“Managers can’t sit back and wait to see problems popping up or wait for employees to come to them,” said Weiler Reynolds. “They can’t wait until they can physically see someone struggling in their cubicle. Instead, they have to reach out and ask how things are going, where people are struggling, what’s causing the problems and what is unclear. Then, they need to encourage employees to do the same thing, so the proactive communication goes both ways.”

Meetings, too, take a different form when team members are working flexibly or remotely. While video or teleconferencing is common in most workplaces, employees can still benefit from a refresher course.

“This might sound really ‘nuts and bolts,’ but I’ve seen many organizations make good inroads by focusing on the fundamentals, like how to behave on a conference call, and encouraging people to use video technology,” said Harrington. “Many of our clients have access to video calling, but don’t use it because they’re not comfortable. It’s amazing, though, what a difference it makes when you do.”

What’s more, the extra few steps involved in setting up a videoconference can act as a natural filter for scheduling unnecessary meetings, or running them inefficiently.

“Meetings get a bad rap and many of them can be pointless, but managers can make the most of them by focusing on trouble points and areas where people are stuck, rather than on a laundry list of tasks people are working on,” said Weiler Reynolds.

Getting employees active on more communication channels – including internal chat and messaging boards, videoconferencing and teleconferencing – can benefit productivity, team building, engagement and more.

“Many organizations spend a long time figuring out how to become multi-channel with their customers – how to be anywhere, anytime for them,” said Harrington. “If you’re trying to become multi-channel with your customers and you become multi-channel with your employees, imagine how much better employees will get at communicating with your customers.”

Whether or not an organization decides to add flexible and remote work to its mix, there’s a lot to be said for adopting the practices that support it.

“Using more communication channels to reach more employees effectively, for example, and having open and honest dialogue can help you figure out where speed bumps are and where processes are ineffective. That can help shape things in a more effective way, even with workers in the office,” said Weiler Reynolds. “One of the biggest things managers and HR can take away from these changes to the workplace is that the practices that help you manage the remote and flexible workforce are good for all employees and managers. They’re just good for business.” 

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