The rise of
smart working

Digital technology makes it possible to work remotely – beyond the office walls. But many managers – and employees – are still figuring out the best route to productivity 

Home life The rise of
smart working
The rise of
smart working

Across a range of industries, digital connectivity – and innovations such as shared online calendars and global conference calls that can be joined from multiple locations – have spelled liberation from the office and the freedom to work from anywhere.

So called “smart working” promises a new approach to work and management that gives people more choice about how to do their jobs.

In the words of business and innovation expert Erica Wolfe-Murray: “Smart working helps people work in a more rewarding way to improve their performance and personal satisfaction, leading to greater profitability through wider use of contemporary business practice and technology. It focuses on results and outcomes rather than telling people how they have to work.”

The move has been driven in part by younger workers who are, says Wolfe-Murray, determined not to be locked into what they consider outmoded business practices.

Tech takes the lead 

It’s perhaps natural then to see smart working utilised by Apple, which employs “At Home Advisors” to answer customer queries, provides them with an iMac and headset, and trusts them to be self-motivated. Other multinationals such as Dell, Amazon and American Express have also seen smart working as a way to attract and retain high-quality staff.

Not all companies offering such flexible work practices are on the large side. In Italy more than 305,000 employees of companies of differing size are already on board, according to the Smart Working Observatory at Milan Polytechnic.

In the UK, the idea has even been adopted by the government, with the Cabinet Office leading a review of how smart working can be applied to the whole civil service.

Employers can see the benefits of low office overheads while also enjoying the ability to grow at the speed they want without having to consider how to accommodate an expanding workforce. Ultimately, they are chasing an old dream, according to business psychologist Jan de Jonge.

Productive… and happy 

“Businesses have been trying to be more productive – read ‘more profitable’ – for decades,” he says. “But the concept of smart working does suggest more weight is being given to the softer, more psychological aspects of our working lives: organisational culture, trust in the workforce, authentic and compassionate leadership, staff empowerment and autonomy, staff wellbeing and, last but not least, diversity.”

It’s these softer aspects that need to be embraced if companies are to make smart working a success. Leadership styles need to be adapted to suit the new more flexible approach, according to Wolfe-Murray, author of Simple Tips, Smart Ideas: Build a Bigger, Better Business. 

“Teams and systems require imaginative planning to see how best they can achieve the required results and outcomes,” she says. 

“Whether or not remote working becomes your new norm, face-to-face engagement still has a role to play so premises usage has to be mapped in. Space ‘ownership’ in offices changes to space usage.”

Design your own role

All of which requires a new level of understanding between managers and workers, says de Jonge: “Smart working requires leaders to trust their staff; perhaps in designing their own roles and carrying out the work as they themselves see fit – rather than their bosses.

“Such trust encourages staff to be aware of their individual strengths. When we work to our strengths, we are more creative in our work. This, in turn, helps our productivity and promotes our sense of fulfilment.”

But smart working is not necessarily the way forward for everyone. “If we consider the work/life balance – some people are organised and motivated to manage their time well, whereas others are useless at it,” says Wolfe-Murray.

“It can feel intrusive – work is now in your personal space, your home, potentially preventing you from switching off.”

Setting boundaries

For those who think smart working could offer a cure for presenteeism – the growing trend for employees to put in time (and often overtime) at the office at the expense of their social life, health and relationships – there is a new peril in the use of mobile technology. It’s what Rob Wall, head of policy at the UK’s Chartered Management Institute, calls “digital presenteeism”, which manifests itself in behaviour such as midnight email chains and weekend texts. “Just because you can be in touch with the office, doesn’t mean you should be,” he says.

Clearly smart working is not an instant fix; it’s something that needs to be worked out on a company-by-company, individual-by-individual basis and to be regularly monitored – but it has already changed the way businesses operate and provided greater freedom and flexibility for many workers.

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