Atos - Mark Youung - flexible working lock in rigidity

Does the change to flexible working lock in rigidity?

In Atos, we are good at helping our customers get maximum benefit from technology by helping them change the way they work, and one key part of getting this change to work involves the establishment of mutual trust.

One of the major changes our clients want is to work more ‘flexibly’ involving more working at home, flexible working. This can be driven in part by saving high costs of central city accommodation, but also the desire to reduce time spent on commuting when it is not needed.

In a recent client project, for example, one senior manager felt obliged to spend four hours commuting daily, whether there were any meetings scheduled or not so that he ‘could be on hand in case there was a crisis’ so there was a major benefit to be obtained.

But – in all this good work to help people spend more time at home, are we making it harder to bring about change in future?  Are we locking people into domestic silos which support the new ‘Business as usual’ but are resistant to change?

In another recent client project, I was working with a client who had already put in place a great deal of home working. Most meetings were conference calls with many attendees, with many of the staff joining from home even if an office was quite close. ‘I’ve got a lot of work to do to-day, so I am staying at home’ was a not unusual comment.

The process of getting engaged with the stakeholders was thus much more difficult than usual. I didn’t meet half of them at all during the project, and although I spoke to them all individually by phone I was still quite hard to identify their voices individually for a while. The IM software in use in the company did show who was talking, but it was not possible to do a slide presentation with screen sharing in full-screen mode and have this visible at the same time.

But watching who was talking and therefore being able to address them by their first name did help a lot, so I got good at doing a slide presentation whilst watching the little symbol on the IM software so that I could say ‘an excellent point Judith’ and so forth.

It also wasn’t possible to easily bump into people accidentally – the most invaluable of interactions in a major change project.  I did much more travel than I would normally expect so that I could use the famous salesman’s line ‘I happen to be in your area, can I call in?’

So whilst the principles of bringing about business change were the same, it took new approaches (and actually more time and effort) to bring it about – this project involved helping people in Functional silos such as IT and HR understand how those in other functions view them, so that they could work together for improved business performance – and this is hard to do over a comms line. Trust is harder over the phone – think how hard cold calling is.

It all reminded me of the learning from I think MIT about videoconferencing in the 1990s, which was that it worked very well for ‘business as usual’ decisions but was harder to use for difficult strategic decisions and major change.

Mind you, I did once go to a demonstration of zillion-pixel video conferencing at the HQ of a major global telecoms provider. You really felt you were making eye contact with the people at the other end.

‘Can you do – well, difficult stuff over this kind of link?’ I asked.

‘Sure – I’ve even fired people ’ replied the demonstrator.

Mind you, he had been in the Military.

Nowadays he might have said ‘Fired at’.

About Mark Young

Mark Young has spent his career in helping business get value from innovation and information management. He started this in the chemical industry where he worked in research management and developed a global business in high performance films, selling to aerospace and electronic industries and learning a lot about the realities of adopting new technologies. For many years he ran an information management group whose paying clients were mostly scientists who demanded the latest in the way of technologies and approaches. In Atos he has worked with a wide variety of private and public sector clients on successful collaboration for major benefit using information management systems, and has published on how this can be done in global corporations and how to measure the impact. His work has covered strategy, roles, governance, policy, architecture, business change, and the content itself. In this area he sometimes wonders if he is following a family tradition since both his parents were journalists. Mark lives in a small village in which several families keep chickens, so a conference call with him when he is working from home can often sound like it is coming from a networked farmyard.