A Humansmart approach to flexible working

HumanSmart thinking is all about about the future of work. Since Richard Branson’s move to award unlimited holiday to his personal staff a while ago ( I’ve been wondering if total flexibility is really the way forward. I’m a great advocate of flexible working as a way to create more equality, resource and innovation in the workplace, as I explained to the Guardian here and I believe strongly that freedom can create increased accountability and boost performance but it can also, without the careful cultivation of a values led culture, create laziness and an unfocused, uncollaborative workforce.

When I think about the times when I have been most motivated, passionate and accountable in my work, I can’t help noticing those are also the times when I have felt valued, trusted and appreciated. Flexibility played a part, but not in isolation.

Interesting then to look at the different ways in which organisations are approaching the need for greater flexibility and accountability. As a response to traditional management structures which encourage laziness and entitlement, ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) represents an extreme swing into radical workplace survivalism, but it seems to lack, in its purest form, the basic humanity which creates the trust, care and openness that human beings need to thrive.

As a system which allows total flexibility, but only rewards productivity ROWE seems at first to represent the holy grail of organisational efficiency. Nothing is lost, dead wood falls by the wayside, and those producing the best results stay and flourish in this most Darwinian of systems. What’s not to like? Most recently, for Yahoo and Best Buy however, ROWE appears to have failed to deliver and they have returned to a more traditional structure which demands physical proximity and and regular working hours. The pendulum has sadly swung away from innovation rather than towards a new way of thinking and building on what has already been (partly) successful.

In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned all home working as a knee jerk reaction to low productivity and engagement, swiftly followed (at the other end of the scale) buy Best Buy abandoning their Results Only policy citing the reason that in order to collaborate effectively, employees need to be physically in the same place.

Ironically, neither of these tech giants acknowledge that their workforces are globally dispersed, that men and women have family and personal commitments which make flexibility desireable if not essential to creating balance and happiness. Going back to the way things were simply isn’t an option. If they want to encourage peak performance and productivity, it’s simply not practical to try and do that through physical proximity or traditional working patterns.

Their working policies also fail to take into account the ‘millennial effect’ or a growing workforce who don’t just prefer flexibility but demand it.

If ROWE is to work I suspect it needs to be embedded in an open, nurturing, supportive, coaching-based, values-led culture. Organisational cultures with high levels of trust and accountability, and those where ‘intentional recruitment’ is used to attract intrapreneurial personalities (those comfortable with high levels of uncertainty and self motivation being the ideal employees in a results focused environment) are those in which an extreme model like ROWE might flourish. There is no room here for the institutionalised, the dependent, but that doesn’t mean there is no room for emotional intelligence, support and communication either. ROWE has much to recommend it but it’s the beginning of a story, not the whole answer.

ROWE fails to answer some pretty big questions but that doesn’t mean it’s a failed experiment. If a resilient workforce is one where we genuinely feel connected and ‘in relationship’ with our co-workers and our employers, and as a result want to give of ourselves, contribute and support to an enterprise which shares our vision for the world, and our values, the ROWE will always fall short but it’s a good place to start.

The question is how we combine ROWE’s self reliance and focus with a more humane model where trust, passion and flexibility are front and centre. That way lies the possibility of a true Humansmart environment.

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