3 essentials that make flexible workplaces work

OfficeMaps support teams wherever they choose to work

International Women’s Day yesterday urged us to “be bold for change” to help forge a better working world.  While bold change may still be required when it comes to equal pay for equal work or female representation on boards, achieving more inclusive workplaces that embrace equality through flexible work arrangements is well within reach of businesses of all sizes.

Despite the growing demand for flexible work arrangements from employees, and executive level support in organisational policy, flexible work arrangements are not yet the norm for most people. Some research suggests a lack of practical guidance for middle managers while experiences in some organisations suggest a fear that a geographically diverse workforce will perform less effectively without the benefit of in-person collaboration.

So how can flexible work options – a key factor in the race to attract and retain good people and establish a truly equitable workplace – make the leap from policy initiative to operating reality? Technology is clearly an enabler for making flexible workplaces work.

As a technologist, business owner, and manager of a distributed team, here’s some practical guidance that I’ve found effective in making a flexible workplace work:

1. Flexibility …. within a range of movement

Flexible working arrangements can take many forms – telecommuting, working non-standard business hours, longer days for a shorter week, split shifts, job sharing or purchasing additional leave are just a few of the more common examples.

Strict rules around what is or is not possible kind of defeats the point of ‘flexibility’, but everyone needs to understand from the outset how far the workplace can bend before it will break. Business leaders should start from a position of ‘yes’ in response to any flexible work proposal and work towards an outcome that is in everyone’s interests.

From the company’s point of view, that means knowing what can and can’t be negotiated – front-line customer service for example. Being clear and consistent on responsibility for any costs associated with alternate work practices will also help foster an arrangement that works well for everyone. For example, you may already supply laptops for staff in certain roles, but funding a suitably fast internet connection to facilitate working from home may remain the employee’s individual responsibility.

2. Embrace technology to nail teamwork and collaboration

As the Yahoo experience shows, employers remain concerned that flexibility comes at the expense of teamwork and collaboration. Yet ever since Jack Nilles coined the phrase telecommuting while working remotely for NASA in the early 1970’s, the technology supporting communication, collaboration, information sharing, and sense of connectedness between members of team has evolved immeasurably.

Technology is one of the essentials of modern business, and the tools you’re using already will likely go much of the way already to supporting employees wherever they choose to work. Both Microsoft and Google, as popular email and productivity suite choices across a range of businesses, offer a mature cloud interface that allows access from anywhere. Voice over IP telephony, instant chat applications like Slack, and cloud-based document management like fileplan are increasingly part of the modern workplace toolkit.

Other tools, like OfficeMaps, can help keep distributed teams productive by sharing accurate information on when and where individuals are available to work. A visual staff directory that helps people locate colleagues both physically and functionally within the organisation, OfficeMaps can help identify which days each individual is scheduled to work for this week and the next, and status indicators show whether each team member is available to be contacted.

Choosing the tools that will support your company will be an important success factor. Without the technology to effectively perform their jobs, users will find and adopt their own…leaving the enterprise vulnerable to cybersecurity threats and creating a technical support nightmare. The proliferation of Dropbox for file sync-and-share is a great example – it’s undoubtedly easy to use, but when used unchecked the business risks the loss of confidential and potentially valuable information.

3. Manage for outcomes, not activity

It’s easy to equate employee value with what they put into the role (ie: hours at the desk) rather than the results they deliver.  This, along with the perception that people who work away from the office aren’t as dedicated to their job, are where the biggest shifts in attitude are required if flexible work is to be successful.

Orchestrating cultural and social change across an organisation takes time, but strong leadership by example and focusing on the output, not the input, is a good place to start.

A results-based management framework where KPIs, objectives, goals, aims or other results are transparent and clearly described quickly reveals whether a person is meeting their objectives. This is a good management tool regardless of how or where individuals choose to work. When given greater autonomy to decide how they achieve these agreed outcomes, they work more productively and are more engaged.

This is another area in which technology can help. At Radix Software, half of our team regularly work away from the office, even in different time-zones. Although I don’t see my staff sitting at their desks every day, here’s how we leverage technology to ensure great outcomes are delivered:

  • We document performance metrics along with team project requirements, expectations and tasks in Confluence;
  • We schedule software deliverables within Agile development sprints using Jira;
  • We communicate face-to-face during our daily stand-up using Skype for Business, making full use of video and screen-sharing capabilities; and
  • On the occasion when remote workers come in to head office, we find an available desk using OfficeMaps.


Making flexibile work the new normal

One thing that’s clear in 2017 is that workplace flexibility is not just a women’s issue. Men and women both seek the flexibility and reward of continuing to develop successful professional careers in a manner that allows them to undertake further study, raise children, care for ageing parents or pursue other outside work interests like charity work.

With technology like OfficeMaps and Slack breaking down communication and collaboration barriers, cultural transformation that makes flexibility the new normal is the final step required to bridge the gap between policy ideal and practical implementation.

Recommended Reading:


Supporting a flexible workplace

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About the Author

James Sowry

Over 24 years ago, James opened the doors of his first business venture - an IT services company operating from a tiny office in Brisbane. He now leads a team of over 30 IT professionals to deliver hosted cloud infrastructure and managed IT services as well as document management and collaborative software development for businesses across Australia. James helps business leaders chart their digital strategy, identify opportunities for business improvement and innovation, choose and operate effective technology platforms and maintain effective operations with timely and reliable support.