Flexible working: How to help your company make the shift

​Workers are always on but not always present, which can be a challenge for bosses.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

"When... physical proximity is no longer there, what is an organisation going to look like and how is it going to behave?"

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The world of work is changing: the traditional office is on the way out and as remote working, hot-desking, and online collaboration becomes more common with teams always connected but rarely meeting.

ZDNet speaks to the experts to find out how CIOs are helping their businesses to cope.

Managing the occasionally gathered, always-connected workforce

CIO-turned-digital-advisor Ian Cohen left his role as CIO at insurance broking firm Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group at the end of 2014 and now helps a range of blue-chip firms and startup businesses to make the most of leading-edge technology.

"My place of work is now wherever my clients are at any given time," he says. While such an approach might be unusual now, shifts in technology and society means the future of work will see a shift towards such flexibility.

"Most businesses are used to the challenge of managing an occasionally connected workforce, where people would use mobile technology to hook back into the enterprise network every-so-often," he says. "Now, individuals are always connected -- but the nature of work continues to change."

Cohen says business in the future will draw on technologies, such as AR, VR, and even autonomous vehicles to dramatically change the whole nature of work. He says most companies are ill-equipped for the radical change associated with managing the occasionally gathered, always-connected workforce.

"I think a big problem is coming down the line. Organisations need to think about how they're going to deal with a workforce that is always connected but which doesn't regularly get together physically," says Cohen.

"Your workforce might rarely come together but, as an executive, you want to create identity, ideas and purpose. These are all the things that have normally come from being proximal to others. When that physical proximity is no longer there, what is an organisation going to look like and how is it going to behave? I don't think most executives have considered the impact or how to cope."

Finding new ways to use technology to keep people closer

That change is already becoming visible; research from CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, shows about 4 percent of UK adults working in the 'gig economy'. That means approximately 1.3 million people in the UK trade their time and skills through the internet and online platforms.

New working methods are also beginning to infiltrate the traditional workplace. As much as 71 percent of UK IT and business decision makers say their organisation will support remote working during the next 12 months, according to research from Vanson Bourne on behalf of Telstra. Almost two thirds (61 percent) of executives feel hot-desking will be officially supported this year.

Dave Smoley, CIO at AstraZeneca, is one IT leader who is keen to support flexible working. "We're a very dynamic organisation," he says. "We're set up to allow people to work from whatever locations they believe they can be most effective. We've made a significant investment in video conferencing and I can get onto a video with just about anyone in the company in any location, whether that's in a Cisco telepresence suite or from a regular laptop or smart phone application."

The firm held an annual senior leadership meeting virtually last year. Smoley says the company runs regular virtual meetings for senior managers that can include as many as 250 people. The real-time meetings allow people from around the globe to present, communicate and collaborate. "We're putting the technology in place to enable flexibility to become a business-as-usual activity," says Smoley.

It is an approach that resonates with Brian Franz, chief productivity officer at Diageo, who says his firm is keen to provide as many options as possible. "Like every company, flexible working is a bit of continual work in progress because the technology that's available is changing so rapidly," he says.

The firm uses web conferencing for meetings and has installed unified communications to help promote internal collaboration, whether that's through email, messaging, Yammer, or the company's intranet, Mosaic.

"We cover as many aspects as possible but we also recognise that the work is never done," says Franz. "We're striving to improve our approach and to find new ways to use technology to keep people closer. We want to foster the feeling of an entrepreneurial, agile organisation in a large, multi-national enterprise."

Fostering the discovery process to support cross-business collaboration

Mark Settle, CIO at Okta, is another IT leader who recognises the challenge of supporting new, flexible working methods. Help, however, is at hand. Settle says modern, tech-savvy employees are constantly scouring the marketplace for new tools that will help to complete their tasks more effectively.

"Your workers can, as such, help you as the CIO to boost business productivity," he says. "Technology discovery was classically the role of the IT department, but that's taking place across the business now. We're finding that workers in key departments, like marketing, are finding and using new collaborative and project management tools, like Trello, Smartsheet and Workfront."

Settle recognises that app discovery is just the starting point. He says cross-pollination of ideas and tools across the company can often be limited. Settle says CIOs should embrace worker-led change in IT and help foster the discovery process. He says IT leaders could establish formal mechanisms to help employees suggest their hot app of the week. These apps could then be spread to other workers across the business.

"People talk about the balance between work and personal life getting fuzzier all the time but, in a world that's dominated by millennials, you see a constant blurring," says Settle. "These younger workers are very adept at balancing devices and responsibilities. Millennials are always-on."

New approaches to working are not just confined to up-and-coming professionals -- executives can benefit, too. Settle is based in San Francisco but speaks with ZDNet in the firm's London offices. He notices that the office layout is similar in both locations, with open plan offices of small groups of workers. On his series of desks in San Francisco sit a range of c-suite executives, including the CFO, COO, and CEO.

"I can get more done in ten minutes in the morning by leaning across to speak to the CEO than I might do in a larger, more geographically distributed business," he says. "As a c-suite, we stumble over each other daily. And that makes collaboration so much easier."

Read more about remote and flexible working

Editorial standards