To get the most from our staff and raise the profitability of our organisations, we need to know where, when and how we work best. Guy Clapperton's latest book examines the concept of 'working smarter'.
It's easy to imagine, or even remember, a scene where as the manager of an organisation you've called all your section heads together and you're sitting around a conference table. As they start to scratch their heads, their expressions becoming blanker by the minute, you begin to realise that your brainstorming or thought-showering session (whatever it's called these days) isn't working.
Soon it becomes time for the Pavlovian reaction where everyone present is invited to consider that there's "no such thing as a bad idea". Apart from the fact that there is: the meeting in question being one of them. And so nothing gets achieved, apart from the fact that you, as manager, are able to tick the box saying you've had the meeting, and you slink back to your desk contemplating the hours that have just gone down the drain.
"That is not smarter working," says Guy Clapperton, co-author of 'The Smarter Working Manifesto'. In fact, he says, it's the opposite. And for whatever reason, the result is that the people you employ have not been empowered to produce their best. It's easy to see how disillusion can kick in, and it's easy to see how the company has gained nothing. Clapperton's new book sets out to show "how the people we employ can be motivated to work more efficiently both for themselves and the organisation that employs them".
Clapperton's co-author Philip Vanhoutte is VP and managing director of Plantronics Europe, a company that specialises in headsets. Clapperton tells the story of how the company had the opportunity to consolidate three of its buildings into a new-build in Wiltshire. This gave Plantronics the chance to "start from the ground up. They focused on acoustics, zones and tasks. And they decided quite early on, having surveyed their staff, that it was no longer necessary to have a nine-to-five existence. Nobody has an office. Nobody has a desk, and the staff comes in as and when it needs to. They work where and when they are most suitably deployed. They are managed entirely by their outputs".
Clapperton cheerfully admits that this cannot work for everyone, illustrating his point with the humorous analogy of actors turning up to the theatre only when it is their line and leaving the moment they have no lines left. "Now that may sound ridiculous," says Clapperton, but it illustrates the point that smarter working "is not just about making everyone work in a remote environment, or ordering everyone to be at the office all of the time. Presenteeism can be a good thing as well as bad. What we wanted to look at is how we can manage these environments in a way that made everyone happier and the organisation employing these people more profitable". Smarter working is about using the "most sensible" methods to get the desired output. "It's about working smarter rather than harder, and to do that you need to be in the right space."
The authors have adopted a programme that they call the 'Four Cs' to demonstrate what this means. And while the idea is not new (in fact they've adapted it from Jeremy Myerson's 'New Demographics, New Workspaces') it's one they think is critical to the built environment of work. In order to work smarter we need areas where we can concentrate, collaborate, contemplate and communicate. If this sounds contrived, then all you need do is imagine a working environment where just one of these is impossible. To achieve this kind of balance, the primary requirement is a focus on acoustics that permits noise where it is required and creates calm for those outside of the hurly-burly.
Acoustics are only the start of working smarter. You need to know how to manage a virtual team and nurture a sense of trust between people who are working where they can't be monitored. What's interesting about this is that "it is as much an HR and company culture issue as it is a technical one".
At this point it's tempting to say this is unworkable. Culturally, in Britain at least, we have evolved to accept that work is performed in a 'master-slave' environment, where pushing responsibility down the command chain looks good in theory, but consistently fails to get results. We are acculturated to expect contracts of employment that tell us when to arrive at work, what to do and how to do it. In fact, work often resembles a (not very) grown up form of school.
"The work scenario we are so used to is the complete opposite of smart. That's working idiotically, if you ask me," says Clapperton. "Now, let's look at something more flexible. My co-author finds that he is most efficient on Sunday mornings. He gets up early, takes the laptop into the garden and works for three hours. This means that when he arrives in the office on Monday morning he is absolutely set up for the week. On Thursday afternoons, he freely admits, he's useless. And his company has no issue with him working this way, because that is what makes him the best person for the company." And that, says Clapperton, is smart working. "It's all about knowing yourself and knowing your task. These are the two key things that go with having the right acoustic environment."
A vital component of smarter working is trust. "And the ground is shifting here too." The issue today is not so much of managers retaining high levels of suspicion about whether people working from home are actually working, but that of those in the office sitting next to an empty desk assuming their colleague is on "a jolly".
Clapperton says that because today's managers have grown up in the digital age and are used to working remotely and outsourcing specialist skills, they know the benefits and pitfalls of such a process. "And they know that people will do stuff even when they are not observed. The difficulty for company culture is how to get worker peer trust in place when someone is working from home when there's a big rugby match on."