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Four ways to address flexibility for hands-on and site-specific workers

Or, “What about the workers?

In all the debate about remote/hybrid working, the future of offices and the future of work, it’s often forgotten that the majority of the world’s labour force do not work in offices.

This is leading to legitimate concerns about equity – basically fairness – in terms of access to flexibility for different parts of the workforce within an organisation. Some leaders have seen the disparity as a reason to enforce return-to-office mandates. It’s unfair on your colleagues on the production line, they say – although the motivation is often a preference for management by presence, in reality.

There can be an issue here arising from how organisations responded to the pandemic. Office-based employees were sent to work from home during the lockdown, and in many cases were issued with shiny new technology to go with it. Now office workplaces are being redesigned to make them more attractive to entice those same employees back in. So new kit, new offices, and new permissions to work remotely.

Meanwhile, colleagues at the chalkface might look on and think, “It’s alright for some, isn’t it?” Their ways of working, work environments, and technologies have probably remained unchanged,

This is why we need a comprehensive approach to Smart Working (as I never tire of saying) rather than a simplistic approach to homeworking (sometimes) for office workers.

Smart Working involves a strategic approach to transforming the nature of work, embedding flexibility, mobility and virtuality as normal in our ways of working. That involves rethinking all work processes and practices to see

a) how they can be done more effectively, and

b) how the experience of work can be improved – for everyone.

So let’s look at four ways Smart Working applies to workers whose core tasks allow for little, if any, flexibility of location. These will help to address issues of fairness and avoid having a divided workforce. In short they are:

1) Think “time-flexibility”

2) Digitise to equalise

3) Transform processes to open new possibilities

4) Upgrade and modernise facilities.

Now let’s put some flesh on these bones:

1) Time-based flexibilities are often possible, if place-based flexibilities are not.

Remembering that choice and control are highly valued by employees, having more freedom to determine the time of work by flexing their hours is a good option. Often this works better at the team level, so work can be coordinated. Team self-rostering is increasingly practised in the health service, and employees much prefer this to having someone in authority deciding who is doing which shift. And it aligns with people and teams being trusted and taking more responsibility for their work and the services they deliver.

People who travel long distances for construction work have been shown to favour a compressed working week, to reduce the time spent away from home. There are various other approaches to a four-day week, which we have explored elsewhere. And, of course, other flexible time options such as part-time, term-time working, phased retirement and more can help employees manage the interface of work with the rest of life.

2) Creating digital equality can improve both the efficiency of work and open up new career pathways and skills development opportunities, which are highly valued.

I’m sometimes taken aback by the stark digital divide that can exist between people in knowledge-based roles and people in hands-on roles in the same organisation. Having seamless end-to-end digital flows for systems, data and communication across all activities in the organisation is necessary to have a single working culture of Smart Working.

In practical terms, this means improved communication between people on the front line with their team managers, product and project engineers, HR and whoever people need to liaise with. It should eliminate the kinds of things that are regularly complained about, like long walks across sites for simple conversations, time-consuming meetings and/or paper job tickets to specify work, for monitoring work-in-progress and for addressing issues as they arise. This kind of basic digitisation is not new, but often the investment hasn’t been made in the technology and systems to make it happen.

In terms of fairness, this takes away at least some of the feeling of being left behind compared with their office-based colleagues. Importantly, it also requires some digital skills development, and this has the potential to open up new career development possibilities. The message to go with this is that you don’t have to stay in that same role forever where the opportunities for more flexibility may be limited.

3) It’s when digitisation moves to the next level that we see even more possibilities. Many of the principles involved in this kind of now-routine digitisation are carried forward into ‘Industry 4.0’, or the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. There’s a fair amount of hype and a certain degree of controversy about the term, but overall it’s a coherent description of a range of changes impacting the ways we work and the nature of work. And these new industrial technologies can add new possibilities for flexibility and new dimensions to Smart Working.

This stage of industrial development is characterised by the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, autonomous or semi-autonomous systems, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platforms, virtual/augmented/mixed reality, advanced human-machine interfaces, wearable technologies, smart sensors, location detection technologies, 3D printing, machine learning, digital twinning, Big Data and new approaches to data visualisation.

The impact is generally to replace (or partially replace, or modify) human hands-on or site-specific activity with automated processes. In essence this converts some hands-on activity to machine activity. This results in a higher knowledge-based component (and huge amounts of data) to be monitored and analysed by a human and/or an intelligent system, leading to further actions as necessary.

Looking forward over the next ten years, these kinds of Industry 4.0 technologies are likely to have impacts on both the kinds of services offered, and also the kinds of spaces and settings needed to operate and support them. In essence, as the work becomes smarter and increasingly knowledge-based, Smart Working practices apply more evenly across the business.

There will usually still need to be people in set places building machines and/or working alongside them, but not so many people nor for all of the time. Those involved in programming, monitoring, analysing performance and sometimes supporting them will often be able to do so from a wide variety of locations.

As with more basic digitisation, these technologies also have potential skills impacts. Those on the front line are likely to need additional or different skills to work with the systems involved as they work alongside new machines and systems. This has implications both for training and recruitment.

Smart Working puts a strong emphasis on innovation. I’ve often found that leaders in production environments are often very innovation-minded. However, they don’t always connect their innovation goals with changing working practices in terms of place and time. Making this connection often turns them into enthusiastic champions of Smart Working, as innovations in products and systems and innovations in working practices become mutually supportive. And here, people on the front-line often have great insights into what could be improved and how, so support for changes in working practices can be generated from the ground up.

4) Finally, in terms of achieving this balance between non-office and office colleagues, upgrading basic facilities for the front-line goes a long way to creating harmony. Mess facilities, rest rooms, canteens and site offices are often the Cinderella facilities in dire need of some TLC. Modernisation of these should include comfortable settings that also take account of the need for front-line workers to use technologies both for work use like checking plans or doing timesheets, and for personal use in their downtime. Ensuring Wi-Fi works well in these areas, and that there are some places for private calls are essential elements to provide.

These four ideas highlight the importance of thinking of flexibility with a transformation mindset, to increase the possibility of benefits both for the business and for all individuals.

There are further ideas and analysis on this, and other considerations for hands-on workers, in my book Beyond Hybrid Working, now available at the beginning of 2024.