Has remote working gone too far or not far enough?
Despite some firms pulling remote workers back to the office, experts find a revolution in where, when and how people work is underway
When Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer issued an ultimatum to the company’s remote workers – return to the office or quit – it sparked a debate over whether new ways of working have gone too far. Some critics claimed organisations had allowed people to become too disconnected. Others feared remote working was killing collaboration and the ad hoc exchange of knowledge.
But new evidence suggests agile working isn’t about to disappear. In fact, two experts predict that more and more employees will decide when, where and how they do their jobs as communications technology, demographic shifts and globalisation drive a revolution in working practices over the next decade.
No turning back
In Future Work: Changing Organizational Culture for the New World of Work, Alison Maitland, a Senior Visiting Fellow at Cass Business School, and Peter Thomson, an Executive Visiting Fellow at Henley Business School, claim we are in the early stages of a transformation of work and there is “no turning back”.
In the book’s newly published second edition, they provide compelling evidence that progressive work practices are gaining momentum throughout the world. And far from being the preserve of a few trendy tech companies, even investment banks and insurance firms are starting to embrace them.
“In the two years since the publication of the first edition of Future Work, we have seen yet more evidence that there is a revolution in working practices on the way,” says Maitland.
“Given the economic downturn of the last few years, it might be thought that organisations would revert to ‘safe’ traditional practices and abandon agile working as a luxury. Yet we are seeing more companies recognising the need to adopt progressive working practices, even in traditionally conservative sectors such as law and investment banking. Companies like GAP and BDO in the US have meanwhile strongly reaffirmed their commitment to future work practices on the grounds that they are good for business and for employee wellbeing.”
The updated, expanded edition of the book includes an extra chapter on how to implement future work, including how individuals can drive change and how to avoid technology overload. Thomson explains: “The debate over Yahoo highlighted how important it is to manage new working patterns effectively. Poor management can, at one extreme, lead to people becoming disaffected and cut off from the organisation, and at the other extreme can mean people overwork and burn out. The solution to these challenges is not to give up and revert to out-dated working practices but for management and employees to work through the issues together.”
Maitland and Thomson argue that, while more companies are adopting radically new work styles, there are still many that cling to a rigid model of fixed working time and place that is better suited to the industrial age than the information age. Long hours are often required and rewarded without any measure of the productivity involved, and technology has simply extended working time instead of being used to enable “smarter” working.
There is overwhelming evidence that employees are more productive if they have greater autonomy over where, when and how they work. Trusting people to manage their own work lives, individually or in teams, pays off. Organisations that have switched to the new model also benefit from more motivated workers, better customer service and lower costs, say the authors.
Unilever, the global consumer goods multinational, has seen big business benefits from its Agile Working strategy over the past two years, including: €95m in cost savings from avoiding business travel; increased employee productivity; and the continuation of critical projects during disruption from major events such as the London Olympics and Hurricane Sandy.