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The uses and limitations of role profiling for Smart Working

It’s useful for planning, but don’t let it get in the way of more dynamic flexibility

I’m sometimes brought into help with Smart/Agile working projects that are running into trouble or are not really delivering significant benefits.

In many of these cases, some kind of role-profiling is involved, acting as a brake on real flexibility, and compromising best use of the office space. Why is this?

In my view role profiling risks cementing old ideas of working practices and sets people off on the wrong foot into the new world of work.

With many organisations now moving into Smart Working for the first time as a response to the pandemic, I find renewed interest in basing new ways of working on readily communicable categories of roles. So we need to think closely about the pros and the cons, and whether in the long run it’s a good way to deliver the benefit of Smart Working.

How does it work?

Usually role profiling involves a process for segmenting staff into generic categories such as:

  • Fixed/Static/Anchor/Office-based
  • Flexible
  • Mobile
  • Homeworkers

These are sometimes divided into sub-categories, such as Flexible-in-office, Flexible-out-of-office, super-mobile, and so forth.

Why do it? The logic is that it will contribute to space planning by building some space allocations around each profile. So ‘Fixed’ staff may be given a dedicated desk, ‘Flexible’ staff will share at a certain ratio of desks to people, and ‘Mobile’ staff at a different ratio. It may also be tied to the provision of technologies, equipment (such as a desk for a homeworker) or even to permissions, such as being able to access systems remotely.

It’s easy to see why organisations do this. It seems to help prepare teams for the physical aspects of change, engages them in some kind of dialogue about working practices, and provides a kind of security-blanket reassurance that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’.

So what’s the problem?

For an organisation committed to continuous improvement, profiling might operate as a passing phase. As people find it’s limited usefulness, the categories soon fade away and people adopt genuine Smart Working rather than some kind of halfway house.

On the other hand, an organisation might simply get stuck in a moment, and need help to get out of it.

These are the key reasons why role-profiling can lead to bad practice:

  1. It creates different categories of flexibility, based around jobs rather than looking at the capacity for doing individual activities differently. Any approach that focuses on whole roles, rather than the activities that make up the work of a team, just won’t deliver the benefits.
  2. Who says who will be in which category?
    Usually this is left to the line manager. And different line managers will adopt different approaches, depending how comfortable they are with the change as a whole. Sometimes someone at director level will intervene, and declare a whole function must be ‘fixed’. A different director may take a different view. One manager will not allow anyone to be a homeworker, while another encourages it. It becomes a jumbled mess provoking resentment across the organisation.
  3. Alternatively – there’s a tick-box approach. Flexibility becomes a bureaucratic exercise that ignores the nuances of different ways of working.
  4. It gets set in stone. Potential improvements to working practice are prevented by policy.
  5. Different cultures and routines of work set in for different categories of employee. As a result face-to-face and management by presence may remain the default office culture, making life difficult for those who practice more flexibility and mobility.
  6. People resistant to or fearful of change fight to labelled ‘fixed’. They want ‘their’ desk and their fixed territory in the office.
  7. The more people who are designated as ‘fixed’, the more difficult it is for activity-based settings and space-sharing to work. Even though there may in principle be desk-sharing for all, and a clear desk policy, in practice space is colonised. Those who are mobile end up fighting for a reduced amount of space.
  8. The continuing desk culture means that there is less space for the other desirable collaborative and touch-down spaces.
    In the end, everyone feels like they are working in the same way, only with less space and a space-sharing policy that doesn’t work as intended.

What should be done?

After more than 20 years of being involved in these kinds of changes, I believe the best option is just not to do it. It leads to more problems than benefits. And even if it goes fairly smoothly at the time, it may well slow down the delivery of significant benefits and will require a big rethink later. Might as well get it right at the outset.

So what should you do?

  1. The key is to base flexibility around the activities people do, not whole roles.
  2. ‘Think with your new head on, not the old one.’ That is, examine all working practices and processes to see how they can be done more effectively in a Smart Working context. Then see how this impacts on the possibilities for where, when and how work is done – and sometimes by whom, too. Avoid thinking in categories based on how work has always been done.
  3. Start from the principle that everyone is a Smart Worker. Then see what are the genuine factors that require activities to be done at a particular place or a particular time.
  4. Facilitate team agreements about the best places and times for doing work, ways of interacting, requirements for reporting, how space is used in the office, etc.
  5. Identify the constraints that need to be overcome in future iterations of improvement – e.g. replacing paper-based processes that anchor people unnecessarily to a particular location, and plan for the continuation of the Smart Working journey.

This kind of organic and dynamic approach to changing the way we work will succeed far better than any bureaucratic and policy-focused approach of categorising employees.