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The E-Team

Working flexibly together in the Information Age

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 concept

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 themselves.

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.

Analysis and self-analysis

 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 work -

  • where they do what they do,

  • why they do it there,

  • the times when tasks are performed

  • the business processes involved.

This process will also highlight

  • training needs - particularly in the areas of using new technologies

  • the strengths and weaknesses of existing systems.

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 with.

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 outset.

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.

Communications

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 know something.

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 must.

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 meantime.

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

Space

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 systems

  • specialist space - tailored for specialist tasks, such as research or using special (e.g. graphic) equipment

  • quiet space - to do work that needs to be done without interruption

  • meeting rooms.

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 practical considerations.

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:

  • cross-departmental team

  • client-contractor team (may be internal or external relationship)

  • inter-agency/inter organisational team.

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 co-ordinate activities.

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.

In summary

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 action.

We've had a small deluge of positive feedback about our recent article Being an E-Manager. We've been hearing how a number of people charged with implementing ework have been printing this out to distribute to their managers.

To complement that article, we look at the development of e-work from another angle.

Who does  the e-manager work with? The "E-Team". Here's the essence of what they need to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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