Friday, 22 January 2010

When good flexible working goes bad ...

With case studies of flexible work, we hear the good news. But I've come across several examples of flexible working programmes that have gone into decline, or reverse. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • New Chief Executive, cut from traditional cloth, doesn't like people being out of sight, and sets up a review. Momentum leaves the flexible work programme, as managers all the way down the line don't want to proceed with something that may end up being a waste of time and could reflect badly on them.
  • Reorganisation. Faced with pressures on the business, the deck-chair re-arrangers come to the fore. They probably engage one of the big consultancies to draw new organisation charts. Teams successfully working flexibly are broken up and put into departments which work in the old ways. Desk-sharing comes a cropper as the numbers don't work any more, and no one has thought about this as part of the old-fashioned restructuring.
  • Downsizing. When flexible working was introduced, so was desk-sharing in the office. 25 desks for 35 people was thought to be quite radical. But now there are only 24 people in the team, and everyone is reverting back to the old 1:1 and sitting at the same desk every day.
  • Top team sabotage. After the introduction of smart working, which they have supported, the executive management team decide they don't go for all this togetherness. Our work is confidential. It's different. We're special.
    Meeting rooms are re-colonised as private offices - and it's a downward path from here as staff get the message.

What's the message here? I guess it's that introducing flexible working is a continuing journey. And sometimes the ground is shifting under your feet, and it's not safe to stand - you'll be sliding back or falling down a big hole.

So what's the answer? The organisation culture needs to change so that the principles of smart/flexible work are embedded. Whenever changes are proposed, the impacts on working practices become a central consideration.

And the culture needs to have taken root so that neither the top team or the new broom will find it so easy to sweep out the new and bring in the old.

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