For years, people like me have been banging on about the benefits of flexible working. The concept has been well researched, and by and large comes with a multitude of good things for both employers and employees alike. So, why now, when we are finally getting to a state of acceptance, does working from home come with a whole new set of issues?
A victim of its own success?
Talking to JB on Triple M recently, he talked about how it has now become the norm for friends to leave a weekend bbq mid sausage to send an email or do some work. Something that would never have happened a year or so ago.
There’s now a push for the “right to disconnect”. That is that employers can’t contact employees on their rostered days off or annual leave. This has come about from a swing in flexibility that has possibly gone too far in the other direction.
The line between work and home has become so blurred that it’s hard to say where work starts and where it ends. And it’s not just employers who are taking the proverbial; employees also speak about it being more difficult to call time on the work day, some working longer than when they were in the office. And with no enforced break that comes with a commute, the “when am I working and when have I finished”, is becoming increasingly blurry..
The levels of implementation
In part, this lack of clarity has come from the haphazard nature in which flexible working was implemented in many organisations. It was as a result of a crisis, and many organisations had not put much or any thought into it PRIOR to it being implemented on the run.
In fact, some of those organisations had spent a long time talking about WHY remote or flexible working couldn’t work for them, and then, hey presto, overnight they were doing it. And by and large it’s worked ok, particularly for a short term measure.
Where it’s come unstuck is that it’s increasingly clear that this is not just a short term measure, and that the winging it approach that worked (ish) last year, won’t cut it in the longer term.
Five levels of remote working
Automaticc CEO Matt Mullenweg has this to say about the five levels of remote working:
“Its CEO Matt Mullenweg discusses a model that describes five levels, which allows a team or organisation to “plot where they sit on the continuum of remote or distributed work”.
The authors describe the five levels as:
Level one – non-deliberate action. This is where employers treat the shift to remote work as a “temporary fix”, only making short-term plans. “Long term, this approach won’t hold up. In this setting, employees may be putting off certain tasks out of necessity – essentially, until they’re able to get back to the office”;
Level two – recreating the office. This is where many employers found themselves in the early days of the pandemic, but “some may still reside there”. Employers have committed to remote work, often “over” using Zoom and Teams, but they continue to hold employees to office standards, such as immediate replies to emails and messages, and they place limited trust in employees to work autonomously;
Level three – adapting to the medium. The benefits of remote work become apparent, and employees expect it is “here to stay”. Asynchronous communication becomes more common and scheduled meetings occur less in favour of “impromptu virtual catch-ups”, but documentation and written communication become more important;
Level four – asynchronous communication. By this time, asynchronous communication has “reached a whole new level”. It considers “not only the tasks to be done, but also how to hand over the baton to others who may arrive at the task at a different time”.At this level, employee retention is likely to improve as people enjoy their work more. “Everything seems to be flowing much better, with better decision-making and communication frameworks now established. Te real-time meetings that do take place are taken seriously, and almost always have a clear purpose and pre-work or post-work; and
Level five – Nirvana. This should be considered “‘the dream’ of all remote working organisations”. At this stage, distributed teams can consistently perform at a higher level than any co-located team.”
For many organisations, they are stuck between levels 1 and 2, and the employee and customer experience shows it.
Authors of “Work From Anywhere”, Alison and Darren Hill argue that employers need to consider:
Performance within the team. Which is how well individuals contribute towards and in alignment with the team’s performance. “Understanding and clarifying individual roles and how they support the structure of the ecosystem of the team is key in achieving success at this level within your performance framework,” the authors note.
Performance of the team, meaning how it performs against set goals and objectives.”Regardless of whether your team is the accounting team, the marketing team, the sales team, the operational team, or whichever area of the business you operate in, you will have goals and targets that define whether or not the team is performing well,” they add. “Any quality performance framework takes into account how the team organism is operating and how successful it is in the context of the broader organisation.”
Performance beyond the team. “Being part of an internal team across and organisation requires the team to meet organisational objectives and to understand where their efforts fit into the overall achievements of the parent company,” the authors say.
What does this all mean?
For employers, it’s about making an honest assessment of how well this is working and why. What needs to happen from a system, process and behaviours perspective to make this effective and efficient for the long term?
The good news is that we know a lot more about remote and flexible working a year on. We know what are the elements that make it work, and why it doesn’t work. We know that boundaries need to be put in place, and that employees still need connection and proper communication.
For employees, it’s about boundary setting, either personally or with your employer. We shouldn’t need to have to enshrine in legal documents principles that are common sense. Employees need time away from the workplace, and shouldn’t be contacted unless there is an absolute emergency and there’s no other option. Likewise, there needs to be an acknowledgement that flexibility works both ways.
For leaders, look at your shadow. If you are sending emails out at 3am, what message does that send? If you make yourself available 24/7, is that great leadership or does it send a message that everyone is always available, all the time?
Flexible or remote working has many many benefits. We have repeatedly talked about these over the years on this blog. It works for employees AND employers.
But.. and there is a but..
It needs to be planned. It needs thought and care about how it is going to work. Systems need to be changed to account for a different way of working. Behaviours, especially those of managers may need to be adjusted, particularly when it comes to trusting employees.
And everyone needs to be clear on what flexibility actually means. It’s not a free for all, all the time.
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- More on flexible working
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- Employers to pass four levels of remote working before nirvana
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Image – Kouta the Maltese Pom, who has enjoyed working from home immensely