Together Alone – Going forward to work in the new normal

“We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they are at their desk or in their kitchen. Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will” – Richard Branson.

Since the middle of March, the way many of us work has changed beyond all recognition. Government lockdowns worldwide have seen people flocking to home working – overcoming technical challenges such as the availability of laptops, secure remote connectivity, and broadband performance, with organisations accelerating home working projects originally planned out over years, into weeks.

However, true agile working is about more than just technology…it’s the intersection of IT, facilities and, crucially, HR and culture change. Whilst traditionally many organisations have zeroed in on the technology and facilities aspects, the HR and cultural dimension has often been overlooked or has developed organically rather than via a clear enabling HR strategy.

Culture Shift

Too many organisations do not have an HR culture which is supportive of agile working and this can be evidenced in the many comments seen on LinkedIn from those whose companies have only reluctantly allowed them to work from home during the pandemic, often only agreeing to do this when mandated by government.

I have acquaintances who have moved to home working, but have felt compelled by their company culture to retain the paradigm of the office – for example working a fixed nine till five schedule due to concerns that if someone tries to contact them in those hours and they are not available, that person will immediately assume they are using home working to “slack off”.

Sometimes technology constraints can limit the freedom of homeworkers – for example those with poor home broadband will find video-conferencing works best in the mornings before the rest of their street hops onto their contended broadband service – but more often than not constraints are driven by company culture.

Key factors that might be holding organisations back include:

  • A culture of presenteeism rather than an outcomes focused approach to performance
  • A lack of clear performance management policies and objectives
  • A command and control culture and micro-management of work
  • A fundamental lack of trust and respect for employees

Clearly, until organisations firstly recognise and then act to address the above cultural challenges, home working is unlikely to evolve into true agile working. This organisational change will be more challenging for some businesses than others, but as the saying goes “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”

How we work as well as where we work

What this crisis has demonstrated is that remote working can be made to work, even if it has been easier for some than others. But home working is not the same as agile working – it’s just one facet. The principles of agile working apply back in the office (when we are able to go back) in terms of facilities (e.g. hot desking areas, team zones) and outside of both the office and home, for example working on client/customer sites and working whilst travelling.

The principles of agile working encompass both work locations (the where) and work styles (the how). Right now, business leaders are reviewing business processes deemed not critical to their organisations in the current circumstances and asking whether they are redundant in the longer term; this is a tactical shift in the “how” but there are also more adaptive and innovative shifts which could be considered in the medium and long term.

Adapt and Innovate

An example of how organisations may adapt the “how” as well as the “where” is the adoption of the agile approach used in project management. Agile methodology breaks down projects into small pieces that are completed in work sessions (often referred to as sprints) which typically run through a design, build and test lifecycle. But why should agile be confined to projects? Many standard business processes can lend themselves to the agile approach with a little imagination. By breaking the business process down into modular “chunks”, tasks can be distributed and fulfilled in a multi-sourced fashion, thus increasing business productivity.

Next, consider how adaptation can segue into innovation through the intersection of the how and the where…if this pandemic has proved that remote/virtual working can be effective, geographical boundaries become less relevant. So, in the future when recruiting for your Spanish account manager, you may wish to consider candidates in, for example the LATAM countries to find your ideal candidate. Sure, there are time zone challenges to overcome, but now business leaders need no longer be constrained to the same extent by specific proximity to either the workplace, or their customers.

Taking this a step further, how about the concept of zonal working? Zonal working is a build on the how and where of agile working which contends that, if tasks can be modularised and geography is not a major factor, then work can be production-lined 24×7 with like-skilled professionals collaborating on the completion of activities – whether these be developing a technical design, coding software, or testing a solution in sprints – with handover points across time zones…a kind of agile working “pass the parcel” that could dramatically reduce cycle times.

At Peru Consulting we have professionals with many years of experience in agile working from both a technology, facilities and people perspective and also skilled practitioners in the “how” of agile working as well as the “where”. Once organisations embrace the culture change that comes with agile working, and the opportunities it presents, the world could truly be their oyster.

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