Opinion remains divided on working from home, even causing a rift in the UK cabinet, with one government minister calling for civil servants to return to the office and another questioning the focus on measuring numbers of bodies at desks, rather than productivity.
We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time in terms of our acceptance that work – clerical especially – can be done without commuting to an office five days a week. Even just a few years ago describing someone as ‘shirking from home’ was entrenched office banter.
In Redesigning Work: How to Transform Your Organization and Make Hybrid Work for Everyone, author Lynda Gratton argues that even long before early 2020, we’d got into bad working habits, yet our collective experience of the pandemic has created a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to rethink what we want from work and our working lives. Are corporate leadership teams up to the task of using it as an opportunity to redesign work to make it a more purposeful, productive, agile and flexible activity, the book asks?
Gratton says the aim of the book is to help companies and organisations redesign work. It is targeted at leaders of all kinds and organisations of all sizes.
Drawing on her own research and advisory experience Gratton has created a design process, which is “crucial” for organisations to adopt on their redesigning work journey because a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. She wants employers to create a way of working that “fully resonates with their organisation’s unique purpose and values that acknowledges capabilities and motivations of employees and that increases productivity and fulfilment”.
The design process is based on four steps:
Employers are asked to begin by understanding the skills, networks and jobs that are deemed crucial for productivity. This step also involves understanding how knowledge flows within and across the business and mapping or visualising it. Employers and leaders have also to gain an understanding of what their people want from work and the company, in this step of the design process.
With a clear understanding of people and staff, devising optimal work designs is possible. The book asks leaders to imagine the office as a place of cooperation where people bump into each other serendipitously, the home as a source of healthy living and energy, and supporting focus and coordination through structure of working time.
Modelling and testing redesign ideas
The next step is modelling and testing concepts of work designs against potential risk factors to establish whether the approach is relevant today, in the mid- and the long-term, whether it will support technology transitions in play and support employees in making any skill transitions. Most importantly, new work designs need to be equitable and fair.
Act and create
Leaders are advised to act on their models and to create new ways of working to ensure they will be embedded into company culture and practices. This is achieved by emphasising the role of leaders, acknowledging and supporting the pivotal role of managers and engaging people with design choices so they are involved in the change process.
The book provides case studies of companies that are engaged in redesigning their work, from sectors as varied as architecture, consumer goods and broadcasting, in Europe, North America and Asia.
Through her experience of working with different companies, one of Gratton’s conclusions is that many are driven to redesigning work to enable employees to thrive. She says testing any model is crucial because it has to be futureproofed, which requires a view of how employees, jobs and technology will change in time.
This particular section includes a case study from US telecommunications company Verizon, which before the pandemic was facing a skills shortage among its field technicians who needed to be able to work with new technologies such as fibre optic cable and older technologies based on copper wire. Verizon has designed work so as to identify and connect older employees, the experts in these legacy technologies, with newer technicians in the field. Social distancing challenges introduced by the pandemic also led Verizon to partner with augmented reality tech companies to develop solutions that could bridge the gap between the field technicians and the experts based in the office.
There are other case studies of companies that have designed roles that provide employees with job security and space for other activities and interests. This would accommodate staff who, for example, might be in the third decade of their career but are not yet ready to retire, or staff who want to spend more time travelling or those who might be interested in job sharing a permanent role.
Unilever, which has been implementing such approaches (called ‘U-work’) has concluded that these flexible working models are not for everyone but suit around 2-4% of its workforce.
These case studies and experiences, especially of one of the world’s largest fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies, are interesting because they challenge initial concerns that leaders and employers may have about how a flexible working model can strike the balance between productivity and meeting the individual needs of employees.
Another case study shows how when, like many, Sage suddenly had to switch its workforce to remote working, it began to rethink how employees should be “present” as well as address some of the perceived inconsistencies in flexible working across the workforce.
The book details how executive buy-in for a new flexible work model was achieved at Sage. The new model was presented to the leadership team in sessions in which the leadership team pushed back and tested thinking about time and place in the flexible model. However, in hindsight, these sessions were seen as instrumental in gaining leadership buy-in.
Armed with Redesigning Work: How to Transform Your Organization and Make Hybrid Work for Everyone employers have no excuse but to make the leap from the “rhetoric of ideas to action of creation and implementation”.
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