The impact of flexible working on team work

Author: Sandra Henke, Group Head of People & Culture, Hays

Many modern workforces have become more flexible, agile and fluid. Many of us spend increasing amounts of time working from home or across different areas of the business. But what challenges does this present to a team’s dynamic?

Can teamwork really be created through flexible working?

The moment Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer famously (or infamously) marked her arrival in 2013 by banning home working, there was significant change in mindset. Suddenly, incontrovertible benefits of flexible working – better productivity, engagement and wellbeing – were no longer sacrosanct. As her email to staff explained: “The best insights come from meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.” In other words, flexible working might be good for you, but not the business, in fact flexible working isn’t a benefit, it’s a risk.

While some saw this as a return to old-fashioned fort building, other businesses have decided to follow suit. Earlier this year, IBM declared its marketers would now be required to co-work, because it claims their job is ‘an iterative’, one – that has to be “understood live, and responded to in real-time.” Its message is even clearer. True teamwork cannot be created through flexible working – not even at a technology giant. So, are both firms right?

“There’s absolutely no doubt flexible working is now considered to have serious downsides that need consciously managing,” argues Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of leadership consultancy Cirrus. “Collaboration to achieve common outputs now seems king, and it’s obviously easier to create a community, a culture and a shared dialogue when people are in the same place.”

The challenge flexible working poses to HR

The problem is that this is creating growing tensions between employers and employees. Just as staff want more freedom about when and where they work, businesses seem to be reining this in. And it’s a predicament that isn’t going un-noticed by managers who need to arrive at a workable solution.

“Having a flexible workforce is challenging,” admits Monika Komornikova, Group HR Manager at international property developer HB Reavis. Komornikova still has a preference for face-to-face, and says: “Not only must we avoid misunderstanding between employees and clients, we also feel personal interaction reinforces who we are as a business. It’s the culture we wish to foster – one that recognises expertise in others, and on-the-spot ideas.”

As such, its new Slovakian HQ has been purposely designed with a central stairwell to encourage people bumping into each other. “That’s what we feel gets the best from teams,” she says.

Aware that staff also want flexibility, one solution is that staff identify preparatory work that can be done flexibly or remotely. Only when projects reach a specific maturity point does the switch-over to face-to-face teams occur. According to Komornikova, this means staff still spend at least 20 per cent of their time in co-working teams.

“Whatever the solution is, coming up with it is something that is essential,” argues Stuart Haydock, Organisational Psychologist at Bupa. “Because if we’re talking about the ‘risks’ of flexible working – then if anything the biggest risk is leadership ennui, that they think flexible working allows management to be taken away.”

He argues that what is often forgotten is that flexibility actually needs more management: “This is not the checking-up-on-people type of management, rather reaching an understanding of what the employer and employee are jointly trying to achieve; the way we want to do things, how connected people need to feel to the ‘office’ and what individual responses this might entail.”

When done well, flexible working can strengthen teams

When done well, Dr Hayward even argues that having flexibility is a strengthening rather than weakening force. “If the culture of an organisation is about collaboration in the first place, where people are trusted and empowered to work in the interests of the organisation, then it’s possible to get to a place where culture influences mindset.” He adds: “When this happens, where people are located shouldn’t matter because it’s the mindset that’s collaborative, and it’s this that can still create a sense of collaboration in-tune with the organisational culture.”

Peter Thomson, Director of WiseWork and author of Future Work, actually audits organisations in terms of how well flexible working sits within them. He goes further, suggesting that the more formalised flexibility becomes, the better the results all round.

“One of the problems,” he argues, “is that flexible working still tends to be ad hoc; it might be offered to some, or by some managers, despite official policy.” He adds: “Instead it needs proactive fostering. What leaders need to remember is that employees experience culture differently to each other. Thinking you can create a culture by everyone sitting together is just management by accident. With well-organised flexible working, what you find is that staff instinctively know how much virtual contact with each other they need. Teamwork is something they consciously manage themselves. People actually work better because they’re more conscious about making their virtual team function.”

How to successfully implement flexible working

That’s the theory, of course. So how do real firms, in the cold light of day, implement well-organised flexible working? Advertising giant MediaCom is one business that has recently been forced to think long and hard about having an office-led culture, while wanting staff to feel they can work wherever they want. Last year they introduced flexible working for all.

“We’re not in business to ostracise or restrict some of the brightest people in the industry,” explains CEO Josh Krichefski. “I really believe that by creating a culture where people are comfortable to do their job wherever, we get the best out of them.

“At the same time, I didn’t want it to undermine our culture either. We work in a creative business, which means collaboration is key. Being together and working together is important, but the ebb and flow of what we do means having individuals working alone is sometimes the best way of getting the job done.

“That’s why it’s so important to give people flexibility to choose what suits them best. By putting people first, there’s a certain level of trust that comes from that – but I never have to worry whether people are missing important meetings, pitches or anything else. For me, a strong culture and trust are not mutually exclusive in the workplace.”

According to Krichefski, most teams have weekly, face-to-face meetings. Reviews are always held in person and regular home workers have quarterly check-ins too. He argues the business hasn’t suffered with all these measures in place. In fact, quite the opposite, “Without our flexible working culture, we would not be able to employ some of the great people we do. Flexibility is now a deal breaker for more people than you might think.”

Ensure that when staff do physically need to be together, it’s for ‘quality time’

Online gaming company Tombola has set these minimum hours in stone: “Our core office hours are 10am to 4pm – that’s when staff have to be in to liaise with different teams – for instance games programmers who have to meet the marketing team or the social media and the advertising teams,” says Marc Lightfoot, Recruitment Executive. “Outside these hours, staff can work when and where they like. We know staff find it very empowering. We don’t check up on people – they have targets to produce a set number of games quarterly. After that, people get on with work themselves.

“The fact that we are hitting targets, producing excellent content, and have next to no staff turnover, proves you can get flexibility right.”

Another solution firms are using is to establish satellite offices – either serviced offices, or their own, that form a bridge between home and head office, but still seek to cultivate distinct culture and values. Network Rail has recently opened its latest ‘agile workspace’ in Birmingham, which has room for up to 900 staff at any one time. According to Karen Bignell, Project Manager, Workplace Management at Network Rail, meeting in the middle is a great way of bringing employees together while allowing them to work as they wish. “We have our own ‘DNA’ for the building, which includes having what we call ‘departmental adjacencies’, that is specific parts of the building where people that are in the same department can go to stick together, so teams are still able to operate. We also have areas where people can just be by themselves.

“What’s great is that anyone can drop in, if it’s the nearest location. I would say people actually bump into more people this way.”

They may not realise it, but Tombola and Network Rail are demonstrating what Mark Batey, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School, believes all businesses managing flexible workforces should really be doing – ensuring that when staff do physically need to be together, it’s for ‘quality time’.

Batey says: “When people really need to be congregated, it’s up to line managers and leaders to ensure it’s for high-level, quality work, where being together actually counts. Coming to an office to check the details of a spreadsheet is not quality work. That has no value-building benefit, so should be done when and where staff want to do it.”

The hard part, he accepts, is that this may require leaders to signpost their values better and be more explicit about expectations to those not always at the office. But he believes it’s a small price to pay for the productivity gains that are largely incontestable. “Values should be shouted proudly. What you don’t need to do is shout about how people need to do their job,” he claims.

So are Mayer and IBM right to demand less flexibility? The debate will, of course, continue. But maybe Haydock has a better summary of how organisations should perceive flexibility. “It’s less about risks, maybe more about pitfalls,” he argues. “If flexibility is introduced, but it’s clearly a huge departure from the existing culture, that’s where it can be problematic. Steps need to be taken to get the cultural fit right first. Once there though, there’s no reason why pitfalls can’t be managed.”

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