Angus Lyon is an Enterprise Strategist who works with clients to release the business value of the Microsoft technology they acquire. He is often called upon to facilitate envisioning workshops with CIOs, IT and business managers.
Question: Having grown from five employees to a 50-strong business, I fear we’re losing a lot of what got us here. When we were smaller and working in one place, everyone pitched in and we were really one team. And whilst flexible working is still hugely appreciated by staff, it’s becoming a cause for concern. With half our desks now empty at any given time, we’re having problems staying connected. As a growing company with a limited budget for technology, can you suggest an effective remedy? -
Hi Ray. As your experience clearly shows, flexible working is fine for small organisations, where individuals are accountable only to themselves and it’s easy for everyone to work as a team. Once roles become more defined and processes are put in place, however, that sense of ‘one purpose, one team’ tends to suffer. Whilst personal productivity increases, that feeling of ‘connectedness’ tends to diminish, often to the detriment of business agility and responsiveness. Mobile phones and email by themselves can only go so far.
It’s also important to realise that once employees become part of a virtual team, it’s no longer just a case of keeping in touch with the office; it’s about collaborating effectively with colleagues, customers and other groups within the business; and for that to be successful, you need to ensure everyone is always on the same wavelength. This requires a change in attitude and a rethink of the relationship between your people, processes and technology.
As a flexible employer, it sounds like you already empower your employees to make decisions and act for themselves; and I assume that you’re measuring their performance by outputs, rather than hours worked, which is great. However, with everyone out on the road a lot of the time, it can be hard to maintain a collaborative culture and leverage the collective knowledge of your team. Let’s look at how you might achieve that balance.
Flexibility, spontaneity and fluidity
At Microsoft, we’ve been putting a lot of thought into something called the Hybrid Organisation, which focuses on getting your people, workplace and technology to work in harmony. It’s about creating an organisation that’s resilient and succeeds thanks to strong leadership, culture and strategy. It involves bringing about flexibility, spontaneity and fluidity between the physical and virtual worlds.
To put this into context, let’s wind the clock back to last Spring when Microsoft gathered together a number of experts in business management, social change, workplace design, technology and economics to discuss the Hybrid Organisation. Out of their discussions came some ideas on how to become a Hybrid Organisation without spending a lot of money.
To begin with, the experience of companies like Philips and GSK highlighted the importance of leading from the top. The second lesson was that every effort should be made to ensure that technology and the work environment both enhance the contribution of your staff, rather than holding them back:
Start by creating smart workplaces: when employees visit the office, give them areas that encourage spontaneous collaboration; and quiet areas for work requiring concentration. After all, it costs very little to move furniture around, provide better coffee than the competition and so forth. You can also save money through introducing things such as hot-desking, reducing the number of desks, wireless connectivity for anywhere-working.
Let staff work where they feel comfortable; they’ll much prefer not having to commute to the office every day - and just imagine how much more business you’ll be able to handle if smarter working means you can trade from 8am to 8pm, rather than 9am to 5pm. With your existing flexible working practices you may be achieving this already, but you can draw people much closer together through a mixture of physical and virtual meetings.
Using Lync Online in Microsoft’s latest online service, Office 365, for example, you can host internal broadcasts and enable application sharing, so staff can work effectively together without having to be in the same physical location. ‘Presence’ icons in Office 365 make it easy for everyone to see who’s online at any given time to IM with a quick question or move to a voice conversation at the click of a button.
Axe hierarchical constraints that hinder progress and give some consideration to the needs of middle managers – they are most likely to perceive these changes as a threat to their status. Demonstrate to them that they have much to gain in productivity, efficiency and team morale, and help them ease into the transition Again, remember to lead by example - by sitting close to staff, for instance. Also, try to question outdated practices, such as rigorous group and role definitions.
Set long-term goals, rather than filling in short-term scorecards. Persuade managers to focus on team outputs, rather than hours put in. In my experience, people are far more productive and happy when there are increased levels of trust and the right tools on offer to get the job done, so long as they know what’s required of them.
Make IT systems more accessible from any device, anywhere, anytime. Office 365 will certainly help you take a step towards more accessible and flexible IT. For one thing, you won’t have to abandon your current systems, but simply add its benefits incrementally. If you have seasonal workers or contractors working on a project you can give them a company email address and Office Professional Plus which will let them access documents, email and calendars, regardless of their location. It includes the new Office Web Apps, online companions to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, which will allow them to review and edit documents directly from a browser. Once they’ve gone, simply close their accounts down. Best of all, all of these tools are delivered online, so there’s no big capital investment. You can expand and contract as your staffing needs dictate for just a few pounds per month.
Need further proof? Well, Microsoft itself is already embracing the Hybrid Organisation in its new Netherlands office. The site has 50% fewer desks and everyone hot-desks, including the general manager. So, too, are other leading companies. The electronics group Philips, for example, promotes ‘activity-based working’, whereby staff have no fixed desks or phone lines, but instead work where they feel most productive using wireless communications for voice and data.
Whilst initially some didn’t like the increased noise levels of the open office environment and some managers resented having their offices taken away, most employees now love their new way of working. Indeed, research by the company shows a 20-30% increase in employee satisfaction since introducing the new environment.
Recapturing your ‘esprit de corps’
Above all, changing the way people work doesn’t have to be radical or sudden to achieve lasting benefit; it can be incremental. By taking small steps, hybrid working needn’t be expensive either. A few changes to the office layout can start the process: a new sofa, some whiteboards and some best-of-breed IT can create a new atomosphere and enable better collaboration right across business functions - recapturing that ‘esprit de corps’ of the small business you once were.
I hope this helps. Any questions, please feel free to drop us a line. Best of luck.