Is the future flexible?

We’re a team of six people at Ruth Killick Publicity – but only three work in our office in Tintern, South Wales, and only two of us are full-time.

Flexible working is what we do – my colleagues live in mid Wales, South Wales, London and elsewhere, and combine work for RKP with caring for children, family, and other projects. It works well for us – I have a brilliant team delivering excellent work for our publisher clients.

In the publishing industry, staff are increasingly asking for the chance to work flexibly – either part-time, or to work in another location, or both. Reasons are many and varied – children, elderly parents, long commutes, high rents in London, partners moving to another city. Increasingly, among Generation Y and Z, younger people are drawn to the ‘multi-hyphen-method’ a term coined by Emma Gannon in her recent book about designing careers in more personalised and individual ways, often involving multiple income streams projects. For employers, is this a threat or an opportunity?

I personally think both employers and employees need a bit of a reality check: employers - I don’t believe staff will turn into a bunch of slackers overnight if they don’t sit at their desks where you can keep an eye on them; employees - beware what Gannon calls the ‘work porn’ idea that you can do your job from a laptop on a beach in Spain (my advice? Don’t. You’ll spend hours trying to find decent wi-fi and you’ll only resent people having a real holiday).   

That aside, I’m a fan of flexible working. I think it’s the future and I would urge people in the industry to embrace it creatively.   

I’m not saying my company has got it right yet, but here are some lessons I’ve learned, both as an employer and an employee:

• As I’m in PR, I’ll start by focussing on the positives! People in our team don’t have long commutes, they can spend more time with their families, they can be creative in designing their own careers. They don’t have share an office with me, to listen to my foghorn voice on the phone when I’m pitching stories. As an employer I can work with brilliant, high-calibre staff some of whom are perhaps a little too unconventional for office life.

• Tackle the practical issues first – get systems in place that ensure everything possible is shared – online diaries, documents, spreadsheets that can be accessed anywhere.  The choice is huge – from Dropbox or Googledocs to project management software like Basecamp or Slack. Create good, straightforward systems so nobody wastes valuable time hunting things down.

• Focus on accountability – you don’t have your staff in front of you so focus on how and when they need to deliver the goods.  In his book Remote, flexible working pioneer Jason Fried suggests asking everyone in the team on a Monday to outline their key projects for that week; people can report on progress online. If you’re a team member, remember to provide regular updates and stay visible. And for those moments when you need a response quickly, pick up the phone!

• Get the tone right – Many people are worried about how flexible working will affect a company’s culture. But despite the popular idea of ‘management by walking around’, how visible are the management team in most companies anyway? Most communication these days is written - which makes it even more important to write well and to get the tone right. In our industry we should have a head start on this…

• Overlap – Fried recommends ensuing that a proportion of staff working hours overlap if you are collaborating on a project, to prevent overnight delays on time-critical work.

• Watercooler – office banter is one of the things many people miss. You can’t have as many laughs on your own. Consider an online watercooler (Skype messenger and Slack are examples) where your team can exchange gossip, jokes and offline stuff.

• Facetime – This is even more important in a flexible/remote working culture. Fried’s company Basecamp has 54 staff and they meet twice yearly for several days.  At RKP we aim all to meet at least twice a year and have online skype calls much more regularly. I’m actually a big fan of meetings; done right, they can be stimulating, energising, even inspiring.   I was once part of a virtual team whose meetings were the opposite of that – people turned up late, they were badly run, the venues were noisy with no wifi and no clear decisions were made. I didn’t last long.  In a remote team, you’ll have fewer meetings, so do them right.   

• Envy – When I worked in house I used to rather envy colleagues who had more flexibility than I did – they seemed to float in and out of the office at a time to please them and seemed to have a freedom I lacked. Only later when I caught up with these inviduals again did I realise quite how hard they worked, often at times when I would have quit for the night. Many managers may worry that once the gate is opened everyone will want to work flexibly – this isn’t necessarily the case. Some people prefer an office environment, and remote working doesn’t suit every role either; certainly at the start of their career junior staff could miss out on having senior team members around them. Openness, clear objectives and deliverables are crucial.

• Anticipate the problems. Yes, your staff may love the fact that they can work in their own time, in their own homes, without a hideous and expensive commute – at least at first.  But the reality of remote and flexile working can be hard.  Working from home can be lonely, if you’re having a bad day or week.  Find ways that you can celebrate (or commiserate) with your team.  Then there’s the actual remote working setup – if working from home and ‘home’ already has an occupant, how practical is that? Richard Pitt in Hang Ups may not be such an extreme example.  Can the home worker co-exist with their partner and children?

• Out of sight, out of mind? Employers may worry about staff slacking off but Fried says it’s just as likely to be the opposite – staff can allow work to invade their personal lives too much and their managers won’t be there to notice them getting burned out.  And how would you feel if you as a remote worker were told ‘yes, we discussed your idea in the office and decided against it?’  At the end of the day everyone’s usual needs – career development and recognition, to feel like a valued member of a brilliant team and to ask for help with gnarly problems – are just the same, wherever and whenever they work.

Flexible working will require trust, integrity and creativity from both staff and employers. Exhausted senior managers may look at their staffs’ requests to work flexibly and wonder why they should bother even considering them. But it’s worth remembering that this is a bigger issue than just millennials and Gen Z. Anyone might have changes in circumstances which means they need to work more flexibly – from elderly parents to health issues. So why not get systems in place to accommodate them? And with five generations in the workplace, it’s worth bearing in mind that older staff, too, may want to take this route. In Chip Conley’s upcoming book, Wisdom at Work (Porfolio Penguin) he argues that many elders have unique skills that companies shouldn’t want to cast aside too readily. Yet many of this group also may work part-time and are geographically dispersed.   

Flexible working may ultimately give your company an edge. Why miss that opportunity?