No Image Available

Philip Whiteley

Read more about Philip Whiteley

Smartworking: the future of work


Do you spend your working day on conference calls? Are you a member of a couple of dozen LinkedIn groups, and several different teams? If it feels as though project working, and dispersed team membership, are becoming more common and more complex, it’s because they are.

There has been a three-fold increase in the number of projects for each employee in the past five years, according to an in-depth survey of 1,130 senior international business managers, carried out by JB Associates in association with Regus. There has also been increased outsourcing of non-core services and reduced headcount.

Some 18% of businesses now use ‘services cloud’ model – real-time, online collaboration on projects by dispersed teams using multi-media – and this is the fastest growing model of business communication. Many people are spending much of their time on project work, in temporary teams with members from outsourced specialist providers, rather than the same employer.

For a growing number of individuals, especially knowledge workers, there is no real need for their physical presence in a central office much of the time. The smarter way of working permits considerable autonomy in terms of both location and hours, bound by clear contracts, performance measures and reliant on high levels of trust. Increasingly, an organisation’s office is a meeting hub, rather than the all-purpose prestigious head office.

Globalised trade and the internet have enabled smart companies to become internationally successful without a huge physical infrastructure or large numbers of staff. A thriving multinational company, selling across three regions, might have fewer than 200 employees, though they may have many outsourcing partners. Such nimble competitors pose challenges to larger firms, who are forced to adapt.

The old model of fixed location, static teams, rigid silos and a command-and-control management approach no longer works. Both environmental and cost pressures are forcing companies radically to rethink their whole way of thinking and working. Rising energy prices alone call into question the inefficiency of many commuting arrangements, and offices that are not fully used, with PCs and lights often left on for extended hours.

Other findings from JB Associates and Regus show that, while in 2004 the concerns of business leaders were primarily to do with competitors’ actions and customer trends; by 2008, technology and people skills were two of the top three causes of concern.

This shift in the working life – towards an environment that is more international, dispersed, team-based, complex and virtual – is largely under the surface. Nonetheless, it is momentous – comparable almost to the shift from rural employment to manufacture two centuries ago.

‘The results-only working environment is a culture shift that many firms – mostly in the USA – are adopting,’ says Michelle Brailsford, organizational and people development consultant at the BBC. ‘People do not have to work from a fixed location. People work from home, hot spots, coffee shops or offices if they prefer.  Teams come together when it is necessary to get a result, otherwise, they operate virtually.’

Implications for the HR function are immense. These workplace changes affect everything: hiring, communication systems, team arrangements, management of remote workers, employment contracts, maintenance of trust, type of office and meeting formats.

Human resources managers have for many years been urged to collaborate more with other disciplines. Marketing and finance regularly top the list of priorities; but to design the working arrangements for the 21st Century, the latest call is to work more closely with specialists in IT and property.

The design and use of office space and the technology infrastructure need to undergo at least as dynamic a change as working practices, if businesses are not to be saddled with expensive, environmentally unfriendly buildings not suited for modern working practices; or with expensive IT systems not optimised for remote working and complex teams. This implies a network of offices, with some as a meeting hub where remote workers can arrange to meet face-face, on the occasions that this is thought essential.

Dispersed teams do not just organise themselves; at least as much thought and planning has to go into their design as to any similar initiative in a traditional office.

When well managed, however, dispersed teams can be more productive than traditional ways of working, because there is more focus on the quality of the work rather than presence in a location, argues Michelle Brailsford: "When people are allowed to focus on results, not face time, they feel trusted and go that extra mile for their firm. Because you eliminate non-value add and redundant activities, people feel they are doing more purposeful work. A results-only working environment weeds out poor performers quickly so you get to work only with the best and the brightest.

"Communication improves because there has to be more proactive planning within and between departments, because you can’t take it for granted that your colleagues will be in the office and you can just pop over to have a quick chat."

HR managers who operate as a full and equal business partners will help establish and maintain this collaborative way of working. They will often be the facilitators of meetings, or will arrange training and coaching on communication skills. They will need to hire individuals who are comfortable with social networking and remote working. They will be develop policies jointly with colleagues in other disciplines.

"HR now becomes the facilitator, giving folks the tools they need – like wikis and Yammer, Skype and Webex-  in order to encourage effective communication," says Brailsford. "I do believe that HR managers need to better adapt to the multi-disciplinary way of working.  We need to organise less around functions, or geographies, or even levels of employee, and organise more around centres of excellence. In addition, HR managers need to focus more on organisational performance, maximizing workforce flexibility, innovation, and employee accountability."

An obvious implication of a more dispersed way of working is that trust has to be very high. Of course, it has always been the case that high levels of trust and cooperation help the business – but it is more obviously an issue when many key employees are not in the same physical space as their line managers.

Trust is a cultural matter, in which all business leaders see honest communication as a fundamental part of their day job, in the view of Chris Mellor, deputy chair of the NHS regulator Monitor, and a former CEO of Anglian Water. He says: "If you get an understanding in the business that communication is part of the day job; that it’s part of what you do, and that it’s a two-way process; if you get that working, then modern methods of communication just add to that."

John Blackwell, founder of JB Associates, a specialist in smartworking, says that in a high-trust environment, there is no need for strict organisational rules, such as those covering access to social networking websites: ‘We are employed as bright individuals, yet cross over the corporate threshold and someone seems to think it’s appropriate to do this nannying. Our experience across the board is that we are no different at work than we are as normal social animals.’

Research indicates that high-trust organisations that are continually adapting are more resilient. Studies by JB Associates have shown that higher performing businesses, as measured by financial results, tend to be better at managing change. They also tend to regard change as a constant state of affairs, and devote more of their workforce investment in building trust. Whether these attributes are cause or effect of better performance can be debated; our research indicates that it is a self-reinforcing cycle.

This challenge is not just future-gazing into a greener, leaner vision of mobile tele-workers in a high-trust environment; to a large extent the future is already happening.

John Blackwell, Michelle Brailsford and Chris Mellor, plus James Skinner (Global IT Services Director, Aviva) and Simon Taylor, (Head of Property, Yell), will all be addressing the Smartworking Summit on Wednesday 8th June (08:30 – 12:00) at The Grange Holborn Hotel, 50-60 Southampton Row, London WC1.

  • For tickets (£195+VAT) contact Stuart Gentle on +44 (0)20 8846 2756, or email: [email protected]

Get the latest from HRZone

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.