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Andy Barker

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Where’s my office?


Andy Barker considers HR’s role in supporting collaboration systems for remote working.

As businesses begin to emerge from the worst economic downturn in living memory, austerity measures continue to be implemented across almost every area and business sector. Many companies are consolidating buildings and mobilising their workforce in an effort to save money. Long established teams are suddenly finding themselves distributed across multiple locations, working as a virtual team, with individuals reassigned as home-based workers. At the same time, working patterns are changing and are predicted to morph dramatically over the next decade as the lines between work and home life continue to blur. The economic arguments for remote working are very clear, but what about the practical ones? 

The usual morning greeting between colleagues of ‘how are you today?’ is now more often replaced with ‘where are you today?’ Whilst the web has empowered a new style of working, there are some who believe it has also fractured the workforce. Technology can help bridge this gap, but in some cases it is technology itself that is widening it. 

Informal working patterns, such as ‘swarming’- whereby a burst of collective activity from multiple people across different locations spontaneously collaborate to address ad hoc issues and then quickly disperse once the task at hand has been completed – is just one example of how technology is changing working practices. But employers, and especially HR Directors, need to be equally aware of what technology can’t provide, as well as what it can, and what measures they should ensure are in place in order to properly support remote-based staff.

A recent survey by Opinion Matters revealed that lower level employees aren’t given access to the same remote working tools as their senior colleagues. Almost fifty percent of corporate and public sector workers surveyed said they had not been given the communications tools required for remote or flexible working.

New styles of working mean new rules.  IT should consult HR about specific job profiles and take a much more cross-functional and collaborative approach to the allocation of technology. K2 Advisory’s survey into Digital Workplace Technology highlights how home-working and a culture of presenteeism stemming from ‘always connected’ IT devices are redefining traditional departmental functions and responsibilities. In a third of organisations, HR rather than IT is now acting as the key decision maker on policies and training. IT needs to increase collaboration with both HR and Marketing in response to the changing workplace environment.

No one expects the HR director to be a technology specialist, but HR should ensure remote workers have more than basic phone and email capabilities in place. This sounds an obvious point to make, but there are still many organisations that think this is enough. In the same way that we use a variety of means to communicate with our family and friends – e.g. phone, Facebook, Twitter, text messages – organisations need to provide more than one means of communication for remote based staff. 

HR needs to work closely with IT to ensure remote workers have an effective means of sharing knowledge, pooling resources and working as a team. One of a company’s most important tools in ensuring this happens will be its collaboration system or portal. Email has no tone of voice and the very nature of remote working means all the non-verbal communication cues will be missed. If you are asked to join a virtual team tomorrow, there’s a good chance you will never have met your colleagues.

However, collaboration systems can provide valuable access and insight into the history, knowledge and online culture of a newly joined team. And when used properly, a collaboration system can be the life blood of a team’s communication, establishing working practices and building trust in the competencies of colleagues you’ve never met.

Workplace collaboration can also be an instrumental part of the decision-making process within companies, but it needs to be properly implemented to maximise its benefits and avoid potential pitfalls.  On the plus side, the collaborative process combines different perspectives, encourages creativity by providing a forum for different opinions, and can accelerate decision making and delivery timescales.

However, employees need to learn how to use such systems properly or some of the productivity gains will be lost. The right measures need to be in place for people to change their usage behaviour. For example, rather than sending an email with an attachment, an email should simply contain a link to the group page where the document can be accessed. This way it won’t be lost, or have multiple versions floating around the organisation and can be centrally accessed by all the relevant individuals as new members join the team or are invited to participate.

Within any collaboration system or portal, HR must also be clear on what’s expected of employees, help foster an online culture, and set some ground rules.  Roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined, as ambiguity can be common, particularly in very large collaborative groups. Although company ground rules for remote or mobile working can be met with objection if they are too prescriptive – such as a policy for answering phone calls or responding to emails within a set time.

Similarly, conflicts, personality clashes, discrimination and bullying can easily go undetected online and in the same way that Facebook has now introduced a ‘panic button’, HR should spend time thinking about how it wants to support employees outside the office environment, and how it can create a visible presence online. Technology alone rarely solves a business problem by itself.  It is how people use it that determines its success or failure. HR needs to take a proactive role in that usage.

Andy Baker is a Consultant at Hitachi Consulting UK. He can be contacted at [email protected] 


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