Will Flexible Working Kill the Office Star?

- Remote Working

by Jennifer Riggins

Just like reality TV killed the video star, the rise of flexible working, if welcomed with open but skeptical arms, is likely to kill the nine-to-five office grind.

Except for surgeons, construction workers, beauticians and a couple of other hands-on jobs, why is it mandatory to be at a certain place at the same time, five days a week? Why isn’t the idea of the nine-to-five, water-cooler, handcuffed-to-a-desktop job as passé as it sounds? Mandatory work schedules and literally box-you-in cubicles seem like a truly bizarre idea in this day and age.

The modern business is agile, adaptive, mobile, and constantly responsive to client needs. This modern business should be giving employees the freedom to work from where they want, when they want, with management doing whatever it can to help make sure employees stay satisfied and productive.

We believe that a basic pillar of professional success is that you can now, in this interconnected world, run a business from anywhere while finding the best people for the job who can work from anywhere. Technology enables us to create teams with strong communication styles from anywhere.

But, as The Economist recently pointed out, with that freedom from walls and schedules comes some challenges, ranging from social to legal, to governmental. Everyone’s favorite economic weekly offered up a whole cover article on how we are moving toward a society of problem-solving workers on tap and how that may not be a good thing. If they are talking about it, this idea isn’t just a fun hippie start-up concept, but truly something that can be adapted to work on every rung of the corporate ladder.

With flexible working an inevitability filled with possibilities, today, I attempt to describe what flexible working looks like and how to make the most of it.

What the Modern Office Looks Like

Inc’s John Boitnott already observed the physical changes made to offices over the last couple decades. We’ve gone from Mr. Potter’s imposing jumbo wooden desk, to cold cubicles, to the open office trend.

Now, as flexible working becomes more popular and mobile technology allows us to be out connecting with clients often; shared desks or hot desking is becoming more popular, increasing team collaboration and saving on office expenses. “In 2015, businesses that still dedicate office space to each employee will begin questioning that practice as shared workspaces become more of a reality,” Boitnott says. He also talks about the more comfortable Google-esque work stations popping up with treadmill desks and stand-up desks, yoga balls, and sofas, letting employees who are at the office sit, stand or bounce where they are most comfortable.

Surely, offices have their place, perhaps as a home base for the conceptual Workers without Borders. I don’t believe anybody in a small business needs an office within that office, except perhaps loud telesales and tech support folks. And of course you may need a few meeting rooms. But the “ssshhh” silent office space should not exist and CEOs and managers should be sitting with the rest of the team. Team collaboration can only come from daily connection and communication–this doesn’t come with old-fashioned hierarchical interior design.

I will admit that while we may think flexible working is simply the way to go, some of our local clients may not share the same opinion. Sometimes you need an office to at least put up a front and give them the traditional office setting for serious meetings–after all, you want them to be comfortable too. But other times, you might just get away with inviting them out for a cup of coffee. (And cake! Cake makes everything more pleasant!)

The Decline of the Humdrum Office Means Saving Money

Flexible working supports the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) culture that we live in. Of course, on the off chance that a colleague cannot afford the tools that are needed to do his or her job, your company should supply it. In most cases, though, your team will prefer the tools they already own, while maybe asking for keyboards or screens or other bulkier but less expensive accessories they don’t want to drag back and forth. This means you are spending a lot less on hardware.

And with less hardware, you don’t need the furniture to store it in and on. Nor quite so much electricity, as all those PCs are inevitably left permanently plugged in at the old office, contributing to a much hotter summer office space, dust and clutter.

For smaller businesses, there is the newish option of the coworking space. What a genius idea that probably existed before but has only talked about since hipsters hijacked the #coworking hashtag. With a smaller business, instead of renting your own office space, with your own furniture and your own WiFi and utility bills, you can rent a space with a bunch of other like-minded entrepreneurs and share those bills. It’s a great way to build your own team and to save money, while opening yourself up to a world of other creatives who can often become clients or business partners, friends even!

But Are We All Just Becoming Antisocial?

We’ve become a society that takes more photos of ourselves than of others. An entire micro-industry is cropping up to help us take double-chin-less selfies and other egocentric annoyances. And the more time we spend communicating behind screens and not over conference room tables, the less human contact we are getting. Yes, I think we are certainly at risk of becoming antisocial, though maybe not for a change of working patterns but in a societal shift in communication styles.

I don’t quite like the term remote working. It implies, well, remoteness. It implies being alone, in an obscure, uninhabited location. While flexible working is great for people who live in those far off places, it doesn’t really describe the more than half the world who live in cities.

The isolated term of remote certainly doesn’t describe me, even though I work remotely. I’m on a team with and work with clients from all across Europe, the States, and Australia. Together, we take advantage of the wonders of business software and communication tools from Skype and Zoom for face-to-face connection, to Slack for team communication, to Trello and Basecamp project management software and IDoneThis for long-term and daily progress reports, respectively. I work from home, Starbucks and Subway (sandwich shop), Apple Stores, the library and coworking centers. I would call my flexible working style anything but remote.
There’s no doubt that communication styles need to be honed and team dynamics worked on when you aren’t seeing the same people every day. Part of it is just making sure that the time you spend together, whether face to face or online, is filled with quality communication. Each meeting and conversation needs to be focused on a goal of moving results forward, collaborative learning, or simply making a personal connection.
If you aren’t working in the same room day in and day out, you need to make sure everyone is driven toward explicit goals and that it’s clear who is taking care of what tasks.

And you have to lay out rules for communication. To me, I like to avoid email, so I love people to message me on Skype or Slack, but would find it rude if they called me without IMing me first. I’ve worked with other people who would prefer I email them so they can address topics at will. At Happy Melly, we set up a living virtual team agreement that outlines which tools we use for which form of communication, as well as expected response times. We also make sure to have regular (but not mandatory) meetings over video conferencing apps so we can truly connect (and make sure nobody is doing the dishes while half-listening in.)

Being aware of team dynamics within a remote team or some sort of flexible working situation is essential to your business’s success. If you aren’t ready to commit to clarifying communication styles and increasing employee engagement, then maybe it’s not for you. But that’d be a shame because there are just so many awesome possibilities once you start thinking beyond the four walls of the old-school office space.

How do you integrate flexible working into your team dynamics? Share with us your successes and failures below!

Photo: rawpixel (Unsplash)

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