Virtual Working – A Future Opportunity or a Road to Ruin?

19 June 2014

Virtual Working – A Future Opportunity or a Road to Ruin?

The latest debate in Henley Business School’s Engaging Business series addressed the topic of ‘The Future of Work’ with a number of opposing views expressed.

The latest debate in Henley Business School’s Engaging Business series addressed the topic of ‘The Future of Work’ with a number of opposing views expressed.

Flexible working has been around for decades, and the accessibility of video conferencing and other online community media are increasing our capability to work remotely, but does it add value, or does it simply highlight the importance of face-to-face interaction?

These are just a few of the issues raised at a lively debate on ‘The Future of Work’, hosted by CBRE in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Chaired by Professor Ginny Gibson, Deputy Dean of Henley Business School, the panel of speakers comprised Ben Munn from Regus Enterprise Services, Debbie Pearson from BT PLC, Luke Connoley from Unwork and Nick Kemsley from Henley Business School.

So what are the key challenges for the future, and what impact will technology really have?

Luke Connoley, an associate director at Unwork, and a specialist in the use of technology in work environments, expressed the view that the future of work is something of a conundrum, not least because there are still so many organisations that don’t understand how to use the technology available now! Luke added his feeling that IT departments can inhibit development because they are so used to controlling technology, and the risks involved in allowing wider and greater access to the outside world are – often wrongly – perceived to be a major threat to the organisation.

But he believed that the next generation will routinely work simultaneously on documents, and that this synchronicity reflects the current trends in social media. The use of internal blogs will allow additional input from people who may not have been included in the consultation process previously, potentially adding valuable expertise to the process. And while video conferencing is still in its infancy, there will be a growing use of video pods, which allow any-time communications across the world, and Luke expected that these will become the norm.

Luke was equally confident that increased access to individual workers’ smartphone data will allow greater interaction, especially when linked to CRM and databases, creating more of what he described as ‘serendipitous actions’.

In his role as Co-Director of the Henley Centre for HR Excellence, Nick Kemsley felt that there has been a paradigm shift in the relationship between employees and employers, and research suggests a clear trend towards the rise of employees as ‘consumers’. As this relationship changes, Nick contended that organisations will have to open their minds to engagement in different ways.

The idea of ‘portfolio careers’ could no longer be seen as a development that is yet to happen – it is already here, and part of today’s reality. The average tenure of an employee is decreasing, and we are fast moving away from the scenario with the employer as a ‘parent’, for whom the employees work.

Workers are assembling elements of their skill set like pieces of a jigsaw, and won’t hang around in organisations longer than necessary. So there may be a real need for employers to reassess the investment they make in employee development, both in terms of time and money. Nick suggested that employers may become more like agencies, employing fewer people directly, and if HR departments exhibit a social media phobia, there’s a danger that other outside organisations might take over and fill this space.

And while flexible working has been around for more than 30 years, only 10% of employees are home workers. There are still big issues of individual choice and a lack of clarity in the real business benefits of virtual working. Nick expressed his concern that flexible working could lead to employees overworking, simply because they can access work for longer each day.

But for Nick, the key issue was around the way that performance is measured, and he suggested that organisations focus measurement criteria on performance and output, rather than hours worked.

Ben Munn is the Managing Director of Enterprise Services at Regus, with a background of senior roles in corporate workplace strategy. Ben asked ‘Why are we all here?’, highlighting the benefits of personal interaction, the physical experience of being in a place, the need for clustering networks, and the overriding importance of relationships. Ben recognised the role of transactional outsourcing, but asserted that ‘value creation is key’.

‘People want to go to places that inspire them, and that they enjoy. The “scout badge collection” mentality of portfolio careers means that employers will have to create appealing workplaces, and workers will probably choose to work closer to home if and when they do use the collective workplace.

‘Research shows that 47% of jobs will become automated in 20 years, and the remainder will be more creative and relational, more human, and more about networks, whether actual or virtual.’

As a working example of a virtual employee, Debbie Pearson, Head of Marketing at BT PLC, has operated remotely for over a decade.

‘In some ways, I am the future of work. Does it matter where I work, provided that I maintain relationships with workers and clients? In the end, it comes down to the trust shown by my employer and my performance. The need for flexibility will only grow, but I still want to see people – when it is necessary. Face-to-face contact is vital and I fear that isolation could even lead to mental health issues in some cases. But I’m not sure that I can put a price on my freedom, my independence, my choice.’

Is there a relationship between where work happens and value creation?

In response to a question from the audience, Ben asserted that getting people together naturally creates ideas and therefore value, but it doesn’t have to be in a traditional office, and external influences and stimuli are often positive. So while ‘place’ and community interaction certainly affect the value-creation process, we shouldn’t be prescriptive about how it happens.

This was reinforced by a view from the floor that even within a formal workplace, it is possible – indeed desirable – to create community spaces to help nurture ideas, as well as using internal social media platforms to further encourage this.

Nick focused on the need for judgement and responsibility, ‘We have more choice now in terms of how work is done, and if value is best delivered face-to-face we can’t ignore that. But international working has long relied on technology, despite the cultural and time differences. Global boards routinely work virtually, but they always meet face-to-face at least four times a year, because they recognise the value. So we need to recognise that the best way to create value will be different for every scenario, and organisations must be adaptable.’

Can remote working stifle creativity and co-operation?

A member of the audience related his experience of working remotely, as a result of an organisational push to save money. However, this practice had now been reversed on the basis that the board felt there had been a reduction in the level of creative thinking, and feared that the company would become less competitive.

This was somewhat contradicted by another member of the audience who had been a virtual worker for many years, and found it to be highly productive and cost-effective, with the added benefit that he was able to ‘control the work, rather than the other way around.’

Luke added that office working can be very productive if there are a variety of stimulating environments, and that people will increasingly choose the space and technology with which they work.

There was a general consensus that ‘nothing is new, but the technology has changed’ in the sense that we still need to be productive, while generating ideas and value, and communication with others is a vital component of this.

So how do we measure the success of flexible working?

In response to a question tabled by the audience, Nick offered the view that we need to ask why we want flexible working – why are we doing it and what is it achieving? He suggested that the metrics should be the same for virtual workers as they are for office-based workers, although he added that an allowance might have to be made for the savings in the cost and impact of accommodation and travel.

Ben agreed, ‘How do you measure the success of people now? We simply need to apply the same metrics in any new scenario, including retention rates and operational cost savings to the business. It’s the speed at which things happen that scares some people, but fundamentally none of the criteria have changed.’

Debbie further reinforced the sentiment, ‘For me, performance measurement is totally normal; if we don’t meet our objectives, we get into trouble! And while we choose to work remotely, we still have the option to work in an office when it’s appropriate.’

How does the changing technology sit with traditional leadership?

Another question posed from the audience asked whether traditional, sometimes inflexible leaders hold back the introduction of new workplace technologies and methods. In broadly agreeing with this view, Luke felt that new generations of leaders will be more adaptable, ‘The arrival of Generation X workers into leadership roles will naturally push forward the technologies with which they are comfortable, and subsequently Generation Y leaders will move things further forward.’

A consultant in the audience questioned how to conduct ourselves in new media, observing that value can be destroyed by new media as well as created, and suggesting that we need to spend more time on making it work.

Nick added that, ‘It can be frustrating when strategies are shifting but leaders are intransigent. There will be an element of natural migration, and of Trojan horse tactics, and we can accelerate the process with existing leaders, simply by using language they understand. But it is a complicated landscape, and the traditional employer–employee model is largely obsolete. Research shows that some skills will become commoditised, so in the future, rather than being just an employee, you might consider yourself to be the owner of a set of skills or knowledge that you can sell to a range of organisations. Clearly there’s no easy solution, and I come back to the need to focus on what we want to achieve, maybe with a tailored solution for each individual.’

However, another audience member highlighted a survey conducted by Tata Consulting into trends among European youth, which suggested that 70% of tomorrow’s leaders actively want to work in an office, indicating that a big majority still see the value of face-to-face meetings. And another audience member championed the use of video conferencing, contending that it allows a diversity of ideas to be included in the mix, ‘beyond the room’.

An attendee who had started up a new company recalled that ‘it only became real when we moved into an office and had our own space,’ adding that he felt there were conflicts in new ways of working between loyalty to the company and the promotion of one’s own personal brand.

Debbie explained that while the original decision to move people out of offices was for cost reasons, the culture at BT had now embraced flexible working, ‘We are all performance managed. We put people at the forefront of what we do; it’s very much talent-led.’

What will be the social impact of changing work methods?

To round up this lively debate, the final question was about how the use of new ways of working, including new technology, will affect us all as people.

Summarising the themes that had emerged from the event, Luke emphasised that ‘people need the right tools, but sometimes they need the freedom to access them themselves, so we should expect to have more control over the way we use the emerging technologies. Employers need to invest in workplaces that workers will enjoy.’

Nick, in agreeing with Luke, recalled a time when he was working in a financial services company during a crisis, which resulted in employees using their own devices to circumvent restrictive company policies. He suggested that we need to ‘let go of some of the baggage’ of technological control while still managing the risks, recognising the benefits and being more flexible.

Ben was adamant that ‘there will be a revolution, and unemployment will be a part of it. I don’t know what will fill the void, but humans have a habit of finding something!’ While Debbie felt that the biggest changes will come in the shape of more prevalent portfolio careers and an increase in the importance of personal branding. Professor Ginny Gibson concluded that whatever tools we use, wherever we use them, it’s essential that we seek those that can make things easier and more effective.