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12 ways to screw up a Flexible Working programme

Dubious advice from Flexibility Editor Andy Lake

You can find all kinds of advice on this website and elsewhere about how to implement a Flexible Working programme. Here's 12 ways to ensure failure.

1. Don't ask the staff

Send some managers to a seminar. Let them come back with some new concepts. Let them wield these concepts like blunt instruments, introducing a heady cocktail of 9-day fortnights, annualised hours, homeworking and hotdesking. 

It might work! But the chances are if a solution is imposed from above, your Flexible Work project will have the opposite effect from its intention. Morale will fall. Productivity will suffer. Staff turnover and absenteeism will increase. 

Why? Because you forgot to ask the staff. So you haven't:

  1. properly assessed whether the new work style is appropriate for their work

  2. attempted to involve them positively in the change process.

Expect trouble.

2. Create a paper mountain

So, instead of bludgeoning your way to Flexible Working, you go hyper-cautious, follow all the procedures - and run aground in a sea of paper. Working groups, policy committees, focus groups have all been reporting for 2 years, and decisions and requests for information have ambled up and down the hierarchy.

Everyone's bored, no one takes the project seriously. No one takes you seriously.

I remember one public sector project where every milestone for the first 18 months in the project plan was a report. I bet that set the organisation alight!

3. Feed the Rumour Mill

There is another danger when you spend inordinate amounts of time scoping, strategising, building conceptual models or - it sometimes happens - grabbing rivals from different departments by the throat. The Rumour Mill starts cranking away.

Careless talk about "property optimisation" will get translated as "I'm going to have to work somewhere out in the sticks ".  "Hotdesking" translates into paranoia about personal space. 

The road is uphill from here on in.

4. Create a "Mid-Air Champion"

Sometimes people can be very literal minded. It's always a good idea to have someone to champion new ideas. So increasingly a special post is created with the title of  "Champion". Kind of like a "Drugs Tsar" (only without the drugs).

Unless he or she has special personal qualities, you're going to hate this person. "My name is Champion, and I'm here to make you change".

But worse still is to have an ineffective champion. To get anything done in an organisation you need a power-base. Flexible Working falls across departments. It needs top-level backing, or strong roots in a powerful department. Too often the champion is left in mid-air, with nothing to hold up the foundations of the project. The fate in store is to end up like the  "green" champion, long left to graze at the margins of the company.

5. Leave it to the men in white coats.

They are usually men, too. The technologists, that is. This involves IT, doesn't it? ICT? What's that? OK, the IT department should lead on this.

Well, maybe they should. Many of the best projects have their roots there. But a flexible working project should never be considered as just, or even primarily, an IT project. What will happen?

  1. The project will become incomprehensible.
    These guys won't talk about working from home: they'll beat you down with RAS, firewalls, ethernet, NT, UNIX, ASPs, ISPs, ISDN, ADSL, TTFN, etc etc until you don't know where you are. It's one way to triumph in meetings, though - render the others unconscious through acronym onslaught.

  2. You probably won't deal effectively with the human issues, the process issues, and the facilities design issues. 

But if the IT department has sucked in enough money, you may have a brilliant network, primed for flexible working. It's just that no-one is using it. Big investment, no return.

6. Hey, these systems don't work. Let's put them online.

You're going to introduce "Information Age" flexible working. Home working, mobile working, the lot. But no attention has been paid to modernising business processes. 

So unwieldy paper processes are given an electronic makeover. Disastrous legacy systems are given a web interface. You can access them from anywhere, but they're still useless.

7. Death by 1,000 exceptions

The consultants have scoped the project, measured everything that can be measured. The interior designers and IT specialists have set out the specs. The staff are enthused for change.

Then the recidivists come out of the woodwork. And they're powerful. Suddenly every manager has made out a case why they should have personal space, as well as team space. George has a compelling reason why his team should be in at 8.30 every day for team-building. 

Everyone accepts the general principle. But their own case is unique. Exceptions rule. The project dies, even if the spin lives on.

8. Forget to measure

Well, the project may be working, it may not. You don't know. You didn't measure.

Is productivity up? Are property costs reduced? Is service delivery more efficient? Are staff happier? Is business mileage reduced? Pass!

It feels good though? Or not. But you can't make out the case for rolling it out further, for adjustments or improvements. Ah well, just make something up!

9. While people move, the property doesn't.

The project looks successful, with people working on a location-independent footing. But is it delivering all the benefits?

Because back at the office, nothing has changed. Except that desks are even less in use than before.

This means:

  1. that promised x million per year savings in property costs isn't going to happen

  2. you've actually increased office space and office costs, by creating home offices, mobile offices, etc

  3. when people come back into the office - e.g. for team building, brainstorming etc - the office is still laid out for "factory system" working

10. Let loose the pedants and legal eagles

A couple of years ago I read advice from a lawyer commenting on using electronic networks. Amongst other dubious comments was the advice that "no employee should be allowed to send an email until its content has been approved by his line manager". Hmm, so that's what line managers should do!

As well as gagging employees, there is always a coterie of anal retentives who want to bind everyone in a comprehensive set of policies, covering everything from conduct in virtual meetings to how to carry a laptop.

Sure, there is a need to have policies to cover flexible working. And there are serious issues as regards health & safety, performance, etc. But there's also a cost to excessive caution. Trying to control all eventualities will stifle emerging good practice, and ensure under-performance.

11. Send the workers to Siberia

I know someone who tried to telework from Siberia. Let's just say telecommunications infrastructure has some way to go there.

But I'm talking about a metaphorical Siberia. Cold, frosty, desolate, isolated. Two months in, if you haven't been eaten by a bear, you turn into one.

Isolation can be a problem. But it can also be overcome by good management, good lines of communication. And, dare I say it, regular face-to-face meetings.

12. Believe your own spin!

Have you noticed how only successful case studies are published? 

After your project is in place, at the cost of a substantial investment, the pressures to be seen a success are felt by all stakeholders.

It won't be long until word gets around, and you're invited onto the conference circuit to spread the word. That's great, especially if you get paid well for each presentation!

But it's vital not to get seduced by your own spin, even when others conspire to promote your success.

Deep down, you know where the fault-lines are. And you also know as business demands change, and new technologies for work emerge, that flexible working is not a one-off project. It involves a continuing process of improvement and evolution.

So no time to rest on your laurels - although if you've followed all my advice here, that probably won't be a problem!



You could try to get it right!

Check out the Flexibility/Toshiba Guide to Flexible Work for some positive advice!

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