Those of us old enough or sad
enough to remember The A Team may recall Colonel
Hannibal Smith's catchphrase, "I love it when a plan comes
together". In flexible working, after all the enthusiasm,
preparation, unexpected events and setbacks, it's when the plan
comes together that many of the critical challenges begin.
Your e-managers know their
role, having read the Flexibility articles
Being an E-Manager, and
12 Ways to Screw up a Flexible Work
Project. But, of course, managers are not the only
players. There's the small matter of everyone else. What does
the "E-Team" need to know, and more importantly, what do they need
to do to adapt to new ways of working?
One thing is clear. They
can't simply rely on the e-manager to make it all happen. At the
outset all the team have to buy in to the concept and
acclimatise themselves to a new way of doing things. Then they
have put theory into practice, changing the way they work, the
way they communicate and the ways they interact with each other
and with the organisation. The e-team is at the sharp end of
flexible work innovation, and how they take to it will determine
whether it succeeds or fails.
Signing up to the
If staff come into a new work
environment that they find unsettling and unfamiliar, then the
preparation can't have been done properly.
A key element of this
preparation is consultation. The consultation process, however,
is not simply about asking staff their views. The process of
consultation - through surveys, focus groups and other forums -
is a crucial element of the awareness-raising. By discussing new
concepts and new approaches to work, the future e-team develops
a new vocabulary and also the ability to effect change
Understanding that ework
takes a variety of forms, and seeing which forms are most
appropriate to one's work, is essential to success.
The e-team can operate from a
variety of locations - home, on the move, other offices, hotels,
telecentres, etc. But equally important to understand is that
all the team become e-workers - even if they remain primarily in
the same workplace as before. The e-team can only work if all
the members, wherever they are, adopt a collective set of values
and work practices, rooted in the effective use of the new
information and communication technologies.
Some people may become members of an e-team by
spending more time in the office - e.g. where remote monitoring
or diagnostics is introduced to replace travelling to sites, or
video-conferencing to replace travel to meetings. And people who
remain in the office to co-ordinate and communicate with a
dispersed team will be pivotal members of the e-team.
It's a time for both
analysis and self-analysis. In developing flexible work options,
the process needs to encourage staff to analyse the ways they
where they do what they do,
why they do it there,
the times when tasks are
the business processes
This process will also highlight
The results of the analysis should feed back
into the design of the new flexible working arrangements and the
technologies used to support them
The importance of the self-analysis cannot be
under-estimated. It's the time when members of the team help to
shape the way they work. The change becomes something they help
to shape themselves, rather than having change imposed on them.
But it's also the time when numerous faults in
current working practices and business processes are unearthed,
and opportunities for improvement are revealed. By the people
who know best. It now emerges that staff have always found it
impossible to work with the wonderful client database installed
at great expensive database. It's dreadfully clunky and doesn't
export well to other systems. So it's clear that making the
system available for remote workers isn't going to be enough.
But the staff using it will have the experience and the ideas
for the necessary improvements to improve the systems they work
Work and life
Moving to flexible teamwork provides an
opportunity for addressing work-life balance issues. Many issues
that staff deal with in their daily lives may not have been
apparent, or only apparent to close colleagues.
It may well be that the prevailing culture of
the pre-flexible workplace made it hard for staff to address
these issues. The use of surveys for identifying work practices
and work attitudes should also include questions that address
work-life balance - for example, taking into account how long
and how difficult commute journeys are, whether staff have
caring responsibilities, whether staff feel that work cuts into
their home life, etc.
These issues then have to be addressed in the
context of the team. The team has to be able to function
effectively, but to what extent can it also function flexibly to
allow team members to achieve a better balance between work and
the rest of life?
It is within the team that any stresses and
resentment caused by some people being more flexible than others
will be felt, and where any problems need to be tackled. These
are the kinds of problems that are more likely to occur where
flexible work is introduced as an exception. Moving the whole
team to a flexible basis should clarify roles, workloads,
responsibilities and flexible options for everyone at the
This is also where preconceptions about work
roles can also be tackled. If someone feels that their job does
not allow them to work as flexibly as others, e.g. if they have
a "meet and greet" role, is it time to think more about sharing
the work tasks? If everyone is on flexible hours except the
person who unlocks the office every day, is that something that
can be addressed by a common sense approach, with other members
of the team taking their turn for an early start?
Key to success is sensitivity to other people's
needs and lifestyles. In this sense, it is a mistake to
associate work-life balance exclusively with families, and
"family-friendly" policies. Many people do resent what they see
as special privileges for people with families. But work-life
balance is about balancing work with all of life outside work:
whether this is pursuing a civic or recreational interest,
family activities or just getting enough sleep.
The e-team team may operate to a large extent on
a dispersed basis. Incorporating a range of flexibilities will
mean that they are not only dispersed in terms of location, but
also temporally. People will work earlier or later in the day,
or they will work "normal" hours, but only for part of the time
and may not overlap with other team members.
For this reason communications within the team
have to be very good, and probably more formalised than before.
Calling across the room, or popping your head round a partition
will no longer be good enough. More than ever, there is a risk
of leaving people out of the loop when it is important that they
Synchronous communications need to be improved -
meetings, telephone, video-conferencing - to take account of a
reduced amount of face-to-face interaction. Asynchronous
communications - briefing notes, circulars, email, voicemail,
etc need to be managed more carefully, to ensure that everyone
is getting the appropriate information, and that important tasks
are not getting left undone.
It will more than ever be the case that what is
synchronous information for a few people will have to be made
available asynchronously for others. So policies or protocols
about who needs to know what are vital. Almost as bad as not
knowing anything is the situation where everything is copied to
everyone, and the consequence is information overload, and too
many fingers in every pie.
Communications should as far as possible be kept
in the electronic environment: having pieces of paper
circulating will undermine the efficiency of the e-team. So
remote access to information, from anywhere at anytime is a
A key aspect of this is the customer dimension.
I have been to work-life balance events where the benefits to
staff of flexible working are discussed in detail - but no
mention at all is made of the customer. Whatever the working
arrangements, it is vital that the customer gets a quick
response. For example, making the customer wait until a
part-time member of staff comes in, possibly several days later,
is not acceptable. The vital information needs to be commonly
available, or another team member deals with the issues in the
Similarly, it is not good enough for a someone
working from home to be uncontactable. In many flexible work
schemes, great attention is paid to the IT systems, while
leaving the telephones as they are. The ideal is to have a
seamless telephony system, integrating people into the telephone
network wherever they are. If team members are working
from home, can calls be routed through to them? Can they forward
calls to other members of the team? Or do you have to ask
customers to call a different number, or maybe take a message
and get the remote worker to call back? Clearly these last two
options are second best and may not give a good impression.
Use of the telephone should be encouraged,
rather than always using email. If isolation is a possible
danger, then regular voice contact, including informal,
non-work, dialogue is important.
And finally on communications - there is no
substitute for getting everyone together on a regular basis.
Make it fun, too. Of course this may be difficult, if part of
the team is in the UK and part is in India, for example
In the workplace, space may not be the final
frontier, but it is an area where exploration can be hazardous.
Logic may dictate that space can be used more effectively.
Emotion - related to feelings of status, ownership and personal
identity - means that discussion often follows a different, and
very personal, agenda.
The business benefits and the practicalities of
re-organising workspace is covered elsewhere in flexibility.
Here we are looking at how the team interacts with the space.
If the flexible work project is doing its
business, then the available space will be more closely tailored
both to actual usage and to the variety of tasks carried out.
There should not be a rows of empty, fully-equipped desks with
PCs, phones, in-trays and family photographs, waiting for more
than 50% of the time for the occupant to arrive.
Changing this however, can be painful. Desks
like this are akin to a dog's basket, or a house kennel. It's a
place of security and comfort, and infused with one's own scent.
Even if it is a waste of space.
Practices such as "hotdesking" or "hotelling",
which are introduced to create maximum space efficiency, can
often upset individuals. Just as important, if implemented
crudely, can undermine the effectiveness and cohesion of teams.
Just because, in principle, people can work from anywhere
in the building, it doesn't mean that they should.
"Team space" is vital. Where hotdesking may not
work on a grand scale, it may well have some application at a
team level. Space for the team needs to be divided up into
desks/space reserved for people who are always
or nearly always there
desks/space available to the team members when
they need to work in the office for a substantial amount of time
touch-down space, where team members who are in
the office/depot for a brief time can access the information
specialist space - tailored for specialist
tasks, such as research or using special (e.g. graphic)
quiet space - to do work that needs to be done
Apart from the first 2, many of these spaces may
be shared with other teams. But having a right for the team to
use the space is important. So the principle is that a sense of
personal ownership is replaced by a sense of collective
ownership. But this collective ownership operates at a level
that the individual can identify with - their team.
There do however need to be agreed mechanisms
for determining who uses which space and when - this will vary
from team to team and can be more or less formal.
In addition to the "in-house" space, the team
needs to have a sense of the other places in which they work,
and the procedures and requirements for using them - home, other
office, on the move, etc.
What is a team, anyway?
It is at this point - rather late in the day, it
might seem, that we ask "What is a team"? At some levels this
may be a philosophical issue, but we will try to stay with the
In introducing flexible work arrangements, there
is a need to look at the different types of teams, and the
different considerations that apply. In essence, a team is a
combination of people, united in effort, activity, information
and trust to work towards common goals.
They need not be the kind of "core" operational
team outlined above. Other types of team may include:
Such teams may be of short duration, to carry
out a special project, or they may have a continuing life to
monitor and co-ordinate activities. Teams may be tighter or
looser, in terms of the extent to which they share and
For these kinds of teams, which may not normally
be co-located, the key issues are:
Information sharing - what is to be shared, what
should not be shared, who should have access to which resources
- and how to achieve this in an electronic work environment
Collaboration and workflow - tracking work,
seeing that it is done, deciding who has responsibility
Virtual meetings - wherever possible replacing
routine meetings with online activity, and reserving
face-to-face for critical decision-making, brainstorming and
"getting to know you" activities.
Huge amounts of time are wasted in having
travelling to and holding meetings in these cross-boundary
teams. By adopting the practices and disciplines of a
well-managed virtual team, such teams can greatly improve their
efficiency and teamwork.
Different kinds of team
As well as organisational differences between
teams, the nature of the work can determine the style of the
e-team. For instance, people working in a virtual call centre -
and so pretty much full-time home-based - will face different
challenges in operating as a team than knowledge workers working
collaboratively on a project from a variety of locations.
The virtual call-centre worker will communicate
primarily with customers and line manager, while the knowledge
workers will be in frequent communication with each other.
Different kinds of arrangements will need to be put in place to
ensure smooth team-working in each case. For the virtual
call-centre worker, communications with co-workers may be more
of a challenge, and colleagues will need to work harder to keep
in touch. But those "horizontal" communications are vital to the
well-being of the team.
Becoming an e-team involves more than putting an
"e-" in front of "team" - more than changing the place that some
people work or using computers a lot.
It involves some fundamental changes in
attitude, business processes and communications practices. But
the key to success is to adopt a collaborative process in
setting it up, strengthening team identity through shared
ownership of space, and maximising personal contact -
face-to-face as well as electronic - as the e-team swings into