Books: Future Work, by Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson

Flexible working is seen as a perk, but in fact it's a major boost to efficiency, say the authors. Henry Stewart agrees.

by Henry Stuart
Last Updated: 07 Jun 2012

Does your company offer reduced hours, flexible start and finish times and compressed weeks - possibly adding time off for a school event or even massages at work? In that case, your HR department may be very proud but, in the view of the book's authors, your company is merely 'tinkering at the edges'.

Companies truly ready for the future have put in place the technology to enable their employees to work anywhere. They have abolished traditional ideas of working hours and set holiday allowances. Instead staff can work how they like as long as they meet their objectives and the needs of their customers.

This is the argument put by the two authors. Alison Maitland is a former FT journalist and a senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School. Peter Thomson was an HR professional and is a regular business speaker and a visiting executive fellow at Henley Business School. And the authors' excellent connections produce a range of corporate stories from around the globe which is a strength of the book.

At Google, it goes without saying that its engineers are judged on what they produce, not where or when they do it. 'Our engineers can work whatever hours they like,' explains Matt Brittin, Google CEO, UK and Ireland, 'assuming they co-ordinate with colleagues and deliver what we've agreed. They can be nocturnal.'

For most companies, the challenge of judging output rather than input is in working out how to measure that output. Answers to this dilemma lie in systems such as ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment), which was developed by the Best Buy retail electronics company and has been adopted by companies such as Gap. Key principles of the scheme include 'every meeting is optional' and 'there is no judgement about how you spend your time'.

Workers at Gap describe it as like being back at college, being held accountable for what they achieve, not how much time they spend on a project. Use of ROWE has halved employee turnover and senior Gap executives believe the effect has been so transformational that it has given them a three-year advantage over their competition.

Even President Obama is in favour. At a White House forum last year, he called for federal workers to be judged 'by the results they get - not by how many meetings they attend, or how much facetime they log'. Apart from improved productivity, Obama has targeted an $8bn saving by 2012 from reducing use of office space.

The authors believe far too many companies have not moved with the times. They cite the 'Victorian factory culture' of the City of London, where the workforce is expected to arrive around 7am and stay until after their boss leaves. Yet flexible working is not just about being nice to your people. A study of 24,000 IBM staff worldwide found that those with flexible working could work an extra 19 hours a week before hitting the same levels of stress and health issues as those without it.

A US Microsoft survey found that 71% of employees felt they were most productive when away from the office (against only 11% who felt they were less). Interestingly, a Cisco survey found this belief to be strongest among employees in India, Brazil and China. The book questions whether the office has a future at all. It concludes that it does - but as a meeting place, rather than as the expected workspace.

There are plenty of good examples here. At Vodafone UK there are now no private offices, no personal desks and virtually no paper. Nobody, not even the CEO, is allowed more than one filing cabinet drawer of storage. 'It used to take us 90 days to change a price plan. Now we do it in four days,' explains UK chief executive Guy Laurence. At Cisco, only call centre staff have set work schedules.

Future Work is backed by a survey of 366 managers in 40 countries. They were asked to rate themselves against a Type A traditional approach or a Type B Future Work approach. Well over half are still working in Type A organisations, closer to the command and control model. Yet over 70% of respondents felt the latter was more effective.

This book provides challenging and persuasive examples of the need to change and is recommended as a wake-up call to the corporate world.

Future Work: How businesses can adapt and thrive in the new world of
work
Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson
Palgrave Macmillan £18.99

- Henry Stewart is the chief executive of training company Happy

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