I spent Tuesday morning at Stormont in Belfast, a formidable parliamentary building with a chequered history. I note that most tweets about Stormont use the hash tag #onthehill and you can see why from my photograph. I was acting as a “witness” and giving “evidence” to the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Finance and Personnel as part of their Inquiry into Flexible Working in the Public Sector in Northern Ireland. The briefing sounded so official and the setting so formal that I wasn’t sure what to expect and a tad apprehensive.
Sunday, 17 March 2013
My Short Stay at Stormont
But I have to say that my hosts greeted me warmly and even the panel made attempts to be friendly and put me at ease. In my introduction I mentioned that I used to be a researcher within the Civil Service to which the Chair replied “we will not hold that against you”. Later, when discussing new workplaces, one of the committee members mentioned “there is the one from Morgan Stanley where one of its employees said that she enjoyed being in the office so much, she did not want to go home” to which another member replied “that says more about her home” and another “you wonder what kind of home she comes from” until they were told “you cannot go there”. It seems Civil Servants are human and humane.
I can quote the mischievous little dialogue above because the meeting is recorded and transcribed verbatim by Hansard. I was dreading my transcription but it was not as bad as I was expecting. The downside is that I have learned I have a tendency to waffle a little, probably as I’m thinking up my response. But the good news is, well I perceive it as good anyhow, is that I repeat my main point several times and sometimes I ignore the question completely and just talk about what I think they need to hear. Maybe I should go into politics!
I’m not going to go through the whole briefing on flexible working as you can read it in Hansard, but I have jotted down some of the key points below.
Q: What would the inquiry need to focus on in establishing how flexible working can best be implemented strategically in the public sector here?
A: The key issue is to understand why you are doing it. Over the past few years, the flexible working and agile working agenda has been hijacked by property and facilities management as a space-saving technique, and it was not initially intended as that. It was intended as a means of changing the culture, supporting different work styles and creating a different working environment that better supported the way that people worked. You need to establish what you are trying to get out of it and not get trapped into being totally concerned about saving space and money. Do not get me wrong: it will save you space and money, but there are probably easier ways of saving space and money than going through a change process and implementing agile and flexible working.
Q: Do you agree that a lot of it is common sense? People sometimes take four hours to drive to a meeting when that business could have been conducted over the phone, on FaceTime or using technology.
A: There are lots of examples ... there are many benefits. It is about creating a more productive, collaborative, interactive environment. It is about reducing the time wasted through travel, and not necessarily business travel. It may be that you reduce the time travelling between meetings and locations, but if you offer homeworking or occasional homeworking as an option, studies have found that staff like that. They are reducing their travel costs and travel time, and some of the studies have also found that people who homework tend to work for slightly longer.
Q: Any kind of change in culture is very challenging. I am impressed with the examples that we have seen, particularly of the open-space approach and the flexible working arrangements. As for the challenges and the positives that you have highlighted, what challenges must be overcome?
A: I tend to split them into two areas. The first is the practicalities. Do you have the right technology that enables people to work remotely? That is standard. Is the space arranged to support agile working, and is there sufficient ancillary space, including breakout space and informal meeting areas? These are all ingredients of a good, flexible working environment. Heavily paper-based offices, and dealing with their storage problems, is still one of the biggest issues that we come across when we carry out a change process. As companies are becoming paperless or, rather paper-light, it is becoming easier to implement agile working.
The second area is the attitudinal aspects, which include things such as trusting staff to work remotely and, as I mentioned, whether you are able to manage them working remotely and whether there is buy-in from all levels of the organisation. Typically, we might find that senior executives would buy into agile working because they can see the benefits in productivity and cost savings. At the grassroots level, people get it because they believe that their work/life balance will be better, and they believe that they will be more productive because they can work from home and can write a report without any distractions. However, we find that we struggle when it comes to people in middle management. I spend a lot of time and effort in getting middle managers on board, training them and making sure that they understand the downsides of flexible working, which is that because you cannot see people, you do not know whether they are being productive and effective.
Q: Will you comment on the open-plan environment? What are its pros and cons? When I have tried to work at home, I have had to hide away in a corner of the house where there are no noises or distractions.
A: That debate is going to go on and on. We are talking about flexible working, of which open plan is a component, but the two are separate issues. I do not think that we, as an industry, have ever answered that open-plan versus less open-plan environment. We do not even like using the term "open plan" because it has derogatory connotations. We tend to talk about landscaped offices, and so on. We try to introduce different types of space with a flexible working environment. It is about choice of work setting. We try to balance the open plan with semi-partitioned spaces and perhaps introduce more quiet rooms and even more telephone booth-type rooms. Alongside that, we try to create spaces in which people can get away from the large open-plan spaces and break it up. As you said, by offering occasional homeworking, people can get that report done.
You need to start by doing an analysis of what your people do. You need to understand how they work now, and you need to work with them to try to understand how they might work in the future. From that, you can understand what their work activities are and where they are most productive performing those work activities. Then you can start to build up the space around that requirement.
Q: Your paper states that flexible working seems to reduce absenteeism. How can companies and organisations set that against ensuring that productivity remains high?
A: Organisations tell me that a reduction in absenteeism happens, for example, when people have a dental appointment and do not necessarily have to take half a day's leave or even half a day's sick leave. What they will do is work in the morning, attend their dental appointment and then go home and do more work. They may lose an hour out of the day rather than having to take half a day's leave.
Similarly if people have a bit of a sniffle, they may not want to travel to the office because it is not necessarily a good idea in case they gave everyone else the cold. However, they are quite happy to do some process work, e-mails or reading at home. That is where a lot of the work on reduced absenteeism comes about. People do not take sick leave because they do not feel that they need to because even when they are feeling under the weather, they can still do some work.
Q: How is productivity gauged?
A: Productivity is, as we know, quite difficult to measure. In fact, a lot of people say that you cannot measure it. I disagree; I think that you can measure productivity, but it is difficult and time-consuming. The productivity metrics will be different for different organisations and even for different teams within organisations.
At one extreme, a measure of productivity is profitability. A few companies in the cases studies quoted gains in profitability, e.g. GSK, Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) and EC Harris, which they put down to a flexible working environment. Extraneous factors will be involved in that. Productivity and profitability are not just down to the environment. There are other factors such as motivational issues and the market. However, there are metrics. It is obviously different in a public sector organisation. If it was a corporate organisation, you could look at things such as utilisation rates, fees, ratio of overhead to fee earners.
Q: On the estate side of any company or organisation, have you identified drawbacks in reducing property portfolios? Are there advantages to workers having a base as opposed to working exclusively from a home environment?
A: I have never promoted going heavily on the homeworking. You need balance. You still need a base for bringing people together for training, mentoring, collaboration, interaction, instilling loyalty and all those good things. Some companies have perhaps pushed the homeworking too far and have lost those things. I know of one company that says that it now wants to get people back into the office. So it now has a campaign to see how it can bring people back in to the office. You do not want people working in isolation. You are all part of a single organisation, and there has to be that bonding and that gel. There is a balance, which is why we talk about occasional homeworking as and when required and do not make it the main option.
Q: What are your views on companies moving away from flexible working? There has been recent press coverage concerning Yahoo! and Google.
A: I am a little bit disappointed with Marissa, and I have not got to the bottom of it. The statement was that she stopped authorising homeworking. I do not know whether she is still allowing some kind of flexibility and agility in the office space, but it seems that she has a particular issue with homeworking. The way that it was managed was probably a bit misguided. Flexible working is all about trusting your staff to work when and where they are most productive. It is about getting the most out of them and, in return, giving them a better work/life balance, and so on. To put an edict out that you cannot do it and that if you want to home work, you are not right for the company seems a little bit strong. Interestingly, other people have come out and taken their own stance. Richard Branson blogged about it, and he thought that she was misguided.
Q: At the end of the day, it has to be a trade-off. Productivity is quite distinct from savings on property costs, running costs and all those sorts of things. That is really where it has to be. Do you agree?
A: I do. It always comes down to that. People tend to focus on the property savings because you can measure that. The finance director or the treasurer or whatever like those kinds of number – they can see them. When you start talking about improving interaction, collaboration and work-life balance, and you say that people are going to be happier and more productive, it comes down to the productivity question and whether you can measure it. I believe that you can. There are smatterings of evidence to suggest that it is positive. I would like to be able to quote you a more detailed and independent study, but it is not there. There is an element of belief and trust that it will work. As I said, you should collect your own data. You do your utilisation studies, and you look at the technology. It is almost about whether you are ready for change. You have to understand whether your own organisation is ready for a change. You need to ensure that you have all the tools and the attitude and everything lined up to allow you to do it. You kind of have to do it within your own sphere. Every organisation is different. My advice is to listen to your own people, do your own study and see whether it is right for you.