Prisoners, Castaways and Pragmatists – Some Thoughts on Flexible Working

Everyone has worked out that hybrid and home working are likely to be demanded by many workers and there are an increasing number of practical and pragmatic responses as experience of the upsides and problems increases.  Smart businesses are turning that knowledge into practical ways of developing flexible, responsive and humane ways of keeping their best people happy and productive. It’s certainly a question we get from every client because even before recruiting new talent they are seeing existing employees willing to resign if a job doesn’t meet flexible working expectations.

During a recent TALTRAN Global creative session we focused on where there might be lessons to help employees and candidates who are looking at flexible arrangements.  The questions we asked ourselves and the responses give an insight into ways we try to get new approaches and perspectives on an issue.  Some of them might be helpful.

Should The Office Have Been Invented?

When we have internal discussions, we often try to invert the issue.  When we started thinking about a world where only home working had ever existed it was a challenge to persuade ourselves that the office needed to exist as it did before the pandemic.  There are few attractions in either time or money to commuting, office hours look like a factory-style discipline from the early 1900s and being with other people all day can be disruptive and lacks privacy.

When we tried to create an advert on the merits of office work, we found ourselves focusing on social interaction and the potential work benefits of informal or serendipitous conversations.  There was some support for ongoing communication and opportunities for learning from peers.  A colleague with long experience remembered the assumption of a previous boss that a manager can’t know whether someone is working if they can’t see them.

Chance, opportunities to gossip and lack of trust didn’t make for much of a sales pitch.  We were also reminded that for many years travelling sales teams have operated remotely with only occasional meetings for product updates and celebratory events.  It drove us back to the point that many office meetings offer cover for lack of decision making and insufficient clarity on the outcomes required or how they will be measured.

Does Reality Answer When Opportunity Knocks?

We are obsessed with implementation at TALTRAN.  Too many good ideas fail for lack of follow through and so we spend a lot of time on operationalization.  It’s an idea we borrowed from research design and we use it to define practical steps for translating an idea into measurable action and results.

Applied to home/hybrid working we believe that leaders, managers and workers need to take personal responsibility to establish a sense of perspective and realism about the opportunities and challenges of the new dynamics.  They need to start from a position where the purpose and required outcomes of a job can be articulated in a way everyone understands.   It can be a refreshing, invigorating and successful way of achieving agreement but can often work better with external facilitation.

Establishing clear outcomes is easier to do in some jobs than others but we also find that roles are too often defined in terms of generalities and soft-focus management speak rather than genuine deliverables.  Trust is substantially about knowing that someone will deliver what you expect when you expect it but it makes sense that they need to understand the expectations in advance.  Some colleagues felt that this was a transactional approach but others argued that relying on relationships rather than outcomes leads to favoritism, insufficient focus on deliverables and acceptance of sub-optimal behavior.

In addition to clarifying job objectives, we all agreed that managers and their colleagues who want to work from home should write down and share their hopes and fears about hybrid/home working.  Feelings are important and need to be discussed alongside job outputs so sharing such a list provides a stable basis for discussion and testing assumptions.  Understanding can lead to intelligent compromise and a willingness to innovate to find solutions.

Are Home Workers Prisoners or Castaways?

Moving from decades in the office to being a full-time home worker, or even with occasional in-person meetings, is a major disruption.  If the technology can be made to work, the outputs can be agreed and monitored and there is goodwill on all sides to make it work, its worth reflecting further on the human impact of change.  The phrase about humans being creatures of habit is well founded and significant changes, whether thrilling or challenging, come at a cost.

One way of thinking about the new reality are the lessons learnt from prison life and shipwreck victims. It may sound extreme but, in these circumstances individuals are plucked from their normal lives and have to cope in new and sometimes extreme circumstances.  They also have to establish ways to take personal responsibility for their mental and physical health.  Home workers might do well to consider their opportunity to work remotely as becoming a “prisoner by choice.”

Our research suggests that self-discipline is the key to most things and certainly so when it comes to a situation where social and office norms are removed.   The joys of not getting dressed, not getting out of the kitchen chair and frittering time away because you have all day to finish can be debilitating.  Dislocation and disorientation can give way to depression and even a sense of paranoia.

Our small manifesto for home workers draws on a range of studies but relies on the individual to take responsibility for managing themselves.

Is Home Working The End For Team Leaders And Managers?

A hot topic in our discussion was whether home working opened the door for companies to move to automatic tracking mechanisms – key strokes an hour, retinal tracking etc – to ensure discipline.  Our view was that this was a technological version of Bentham’s panopticon that wholly undermined trust and goodwill.  Defining outcomes was what mattered but an organization still needs to build its relationship with and between its employees because a sense of belonging, cooperation and collaboration have enormous value.    

Companies are keen to keep all that is good about the office and there are a wide range of tools that have been deployed to keep in touch, offer proxies for informal talks and forums for brainstorming and get togethers.  What seems to be lacking in many cases are tools that gives the home worker a sense of personal control and a touch stone for how they are doing.  Mental health has become a particular concern and there are a wide range of psychological self-assessment tools that could be offered to home workers so they can take responsibility for themselves.

Managers need to tread a line between giving individuals tools to understand themselves and taking the initiative when colleagues seems to be struggling.  It is easy to fall into the trap of simply meeting people online for work purposes rather than replicating the occasional social interactions so common in the office.  There is no substitute for a manager checking in for a social exchange or to share some thoughts informally on an individual basis.

We believe that smart managers will become more disciplined and intentional communicators in the era of hybrid/home working.  The process of moving to a more flexible way of working should sharpen their thinking about outputs and also their ingenuity in building effective teams.  These are challenges which are sometimes lost in the dynamics of an office environment where a worker’s personal charisma can distort perceptions about their effectiveness.

Companies must help individuals understand and accept their personal responsibility for making home-working/hybrid working a productive and enjoyable experience.  Recognizing the realities at the start of the process is vital to laying that groundwork and the company can help by providing self-monitoring tools and an active, highly communicative style of management and leadership.  It’s a brave new world that is alive with opportunity.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

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