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Smart Working: revolutionary or evolutionary?

Guest article by Naomi Stanford

‘Smart Working’ is the term used “to refer to the new ways of working made possible by advances in technology and made essential by economic, environmental and social pressures” , and the Smart Working Handbook – from where this definition came – is available from Flexibility.co.uk.  The handbook is readable, practical and contains good ideas on how to develop organizational Smart Working.

The only quibble I have with the handbook is that it suggests both that Smart Working is ‘new’ – as in the definition – and that (in Chapter 3) we need ‘A new culture for 21st century working.’   My view is that Smart Working is not really so ‘new’ but is the current outcome of a steady, albeit accelerating, evolution over decades in the way work is done and to suggest it needs a ‘new’ culture belies the fact that culture is continuously evolving and does not to leap from ‘old’ to ‘new’.

To treat Smart Working as ‘new’ and to suggest that it means a new culture risks inviting shock, and resistance.  But to treat both work and culture as inevitably evolving enables people to participate in continuous development without too much thinking about it.

This article is in three parts.  First the view is presented that Smart Working has evolved to where it is over time.  Second the suggestion that in line with this aspects of organizational culture have similarly evolved.  Third the point is made that this is not to say that we should not intervene to nudge things towards getting the best from advancing technologies, and creative ways of deploying these.

Smart Working is not ‘new’ 

When I first became a middle manager I got my own (very large) office and my own secretary (admin assistant).  This was around 25 years ago. As I rose up further up the ranks into grades of senior management and moved into various other organizations two things started to happen – the space I was given to occupy decreased with every job, and the amount of admin support I got simultaneously declined.  To the point that I now work from wherever I happen to be – l started writing this on an aircraft, and continued in several coffee shops and hotel lobbies (I am traveling at the moment), and do 95% of my own admin stuff.  Note that I am an employee and not self-employed so am not allowed to book my own travel – the corporate travel department does that.

This transition was nothing to do with shedding symbols of power and status as I rose up the hierarchy. My experience may not be typical but my tools for working have evolved – they haven’t jumped from old tools (carbon paper and manual typewriter) to new tools.  The evolution through word processers, to desktop computers, to laptops, to tablets, has been fairly steady although perhaps it has been accelerating in the last five years with the advent and increasing ubiquity of wireless access, cloud computing, smartphones,  and social media.

Similarly my methods of managing my workload have gradually developed. I now use things like OneNote, red flags on my email, task alerts, apps, and various electronic support tools.  Equally the way colleagues and I work together has evolved from face to face and phone to text and instant messaging, working on shared document through Google docs or similar, video conferencing, and WebEx or its equivalent. Meeting physically face-to-face is an increasing rarity. 

The way I’m being managed has also changed over time.  Now I largely self-manage but have to comply with various tracking requirements – time, expenses, and attendance at team meetings.  I am not quite sure who my manager is – I guess I will find out when someone tells me that he/she is going to do my performance review.  My experience is not unique. I have met many people at various organizational levels who report in a matrix structure to more than one manager, who are on project teams, and/or who are in self-managing teams.  None of these managerial reporting arrangements are ‘new’.

So I don’t think there is anything ‘new’ about Smart Working.  I think if we make a direct comparison between 25 years ago and now then things look new.  But if we track our actual experience we see an evolution in work tools, and techniques and of self and staff management.

Smart-working does not mean a ‘new’ culture

If we accept that the ways of working are not ‘new’ but simply an evolution of working practices then it makes sense to point out that organizational cultures have evolved in line with these.  (Although I have heard of some people who still ask their ‘secretaries’ to print out their emails).  The Smart Working Handbook lists ten key characteristics of a Smart Working culture:

  1. Higher levels of collaborative working – between individuals, between teams, with external partners and with the wider public
  2. The pursuit of continuous service improvements, in particular through the use of new technologies to increase efficiencies
  3. A commitment to flexibility – being constantly open to new ways of working and delivering services, avoiding temptations to try to “freeze” Smart Working into a rigid or prescriptive formula
  4. An emphasis on management by results rather than management by presence
  5. An emphasis on working in shared spaces and with shared resources, rather than with territorial or personalized ones
  6. An emphasis on promoting higher levels of staff empowerment and autonomy, to maximize the benefits arising from the new working styles
  7. An emphasis on using new ways of working to assist employees achieve a better work-life balance
  8. A commitment to using new technologies and new ways of working to reduce the environmental impact of workstyles, processes and delivery of services
  9. A commitment to using new technologies and new ways of working to recruit, retain and develop a more diverse and inclusive workforce
  10. A culture of learning using the new technologies to help employees, wherever they are located, to develop their skills and capabilities and move forward in their careers.

Many of the ingredients of a Smart Working culture are not new in themselves.  Five of the ten – the ones not in bold in the list above - are best practice in many organisations that may still work in more traditional ways.  For example continuous service improvement is an ‘old’ idea, as is a ‘culture of learning’ - think back to the learning organization work.  The point is that this develops new characteristics in the context of work that is primarily electronic and footloose.

The five others (those in bold) could be attributed to the acceleration of technology and in particular web-based technologies, relatively recent developments in social expectations about work-life balance, and newish trends to cut the costs of real estate and energy use.  But in themselves they are not ‘new’ – again they are at a certain point in organizational evolution where for various reasons they have come into clearer focus.  The environmental impact debate (item 8) has been going on for many and is critical in relation to energy costs, government mandates, and economic conditions. 

However these ten (and this is probably only a partial list) are things that, depending on the business strategy, organizations might want to focus improvement efforts on.  Working in shared space is often one of these.  Again, working in shared space is not in itself ‘new’.  Increasingly offices are being laid out to an open floor plan with few if any private offices.  This means either letting people work out for themselves how to organize their work in the space, or working with them to develop ways of working effectively – knowing that what is decided now may well change in the future.  Either one of the approaches will have an effect on the cultural characteristics of the organization or a part of it.

Nudging cultural evolution

Think of  culture as being the ‘pervasive, implicit, subtle, complex and dynamic ways of community being that might be generalizable across an organization but are experienced individually and subjectively.’  

This suggests that culture is not easily ‘changed’ but might be amenable to being nudged or influenced.   In my experience nudging the culture is less about looking at the way people behave and more about making planned and conscious changes to business processes, performance management processes, allowed working patterns, incentive structures, facilities design and management, stakeholder interactions, and symbols of ‘entitlement’ in a way that will influence or nudge the way that people behave.  (For more on this approach look at the work of Cass Sunstein, a professor in the Chicago Law School who, with Richard Thaler, wrote Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness published in 2008).   

Let’s illustrate by returning to the item on shared space.  Many workers started to use individual headphones when they moved to shared space.  In most cases there was not been an initial conscious organizational decision related to headphone use.  Rather some people, probably irritated with ambient noise levels and interruptions, started to use headphones to blot these out.  This had an impact on cultural characteristics. Individuals using headphones may have been seen as ‘rude’ or ‘sensible’ or have invoked any number of other perceptions. 

If the uses of headphones spread to other workers there is likely to have been an organizational response:  a ban, an encouragement, a policy design and introduction, an ‘intervention’ in which team members decide protocols related to headphone use, or the blanket purchase and issuance of headphones to all staff.   In any of these responses there is a further impact on the cultural characteristics of the organization (or that part of it).  But again, it is evident that headphone use and their impact on the culture is not a leap from an ‘old’ culture to a ‘new’ culture, but rather an evolution.

In summary – the Smart Working Handbook is an excellent overview of the topic. My suggestion is that those working to extend the use of Smart Working practices avoid over-emphasizing its newness, but rather take the view and the approach that Smart Working is part of the evolution of working practices and job roles.  Taking the evolutionary approach is more likely to smooth the path to continuous capability improvement.  Trying to tackle Smart Working as something ‘new’ that also requires a ‘new culture’ may result in antagonism and resistance.

Smart man with laptop in cafe

July 2012


About the author

Naomi Stanford

Naomi Stanford is a long-time observer of and participator in organizational life.  She has worked as an internal and external consultant in the corporate, government, and non-profit sectors helping clients deliver their business strategies in a healthy and effective way. She writes, teaches, and speaks about organization design and development, culture and change. 

Naomi's website www.naomistanford.com carries her blog, information on the books she has written and the clients she has worked with.  Her current role is as Organizational Design Lead with NBBJ, an international firm of architects and designers.  She is contactable by email on nstanford@nbbj.com..


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