WORKING@LIFE: Helen Wilkinson - Change in many organisations has been driven as much by crisis management as by any overt belief in new ways of working

WORKING@LIFE: Helen Wilkinson - Change in many organisations has been driven as much by crisis management as by any overt belief in new ways of working - It's a generation since futurologists predicted the end of work and an age of leisure. In the interim

by HELEN WILKINSON, the founder and CEO of www.elancentric.comEmail: Helen@elancentric.com.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's a generation since futurologists predicted the end of work and an age of leisure. In the interim, work pressures appear to have intensified, and more and more of us are experiencing the tug between work and the rest of life. Scarcely a day passes without another newspaper report on the time-squeeze.

But change is in the air. The world of work is becoming more flexible and varied. And the same newspapers carry stories suggesting that flexible working makes people more creative and productive. Campaigns are launched to encourage the take-up of flexible working, putting the issue of work/life balance on the tip of everyone's tongue.

But the gap between rhetoric and reality remains large. Change has been slower coming than many of us might have hoped for. A decade after its launch, Opportunity 2000 was forced to rebrand itself as Opportunity Now once the millennium came and went, and corporate equality targets passed by unmet.

And in spite of the compelling arguments for new ways of working, many organisations have been slow to embrace the flexibility revolution. They have hidden behind targets and policies without actively promoting changes to the workplace culture. Some of the most innovative and far-sighted organisations fall short when audited on their own achievements.

A generation on, the lessons for work/lifers, as they are jokingly called among their peers, are clear. Policies and programmes have proved easier to implement than the cultural change that must accompany them if we are to transform our workplaces.

Sweden, for example, has had paid parental leave for a generation, but only recently has this been taken up by fathers after intensive campaigns to heighten awareness of the importance of a father's involvement in a child's early years.

But there are numerous new initiatives to encourage cultural change.

New businesses like my own are emerging to harness the potential of the internet to produce more innovative work/life solutions. Flametree.co.uk, for example, aims to build an online community for working mothers, and Fathers Direct is a non-profit organisation committed to involving fathers in their children's lives.

The flex-executive is becoming more commonplace - so much so that an internet company of the same name recently launched to promote job-shares and new ways of working. These new-economy businesses sit alongside other campaign organisations, such as New Ways to Work and Parents At Work, which aim to promote more flexibility.

On the surface, the pressure for change looks clear-cut and unrelenting.

And it is easy to see it as some natural unfolding of people's desires to regain ever greater control over their working time. However, on closer examination, pragmatism appears to be the order of the day, and change in many organisations has been driven as much by crisis management as by any overt belief in new ways of working.

And herein lies the problem. The e-lancer - the electronic worker, like the original freelancers of old - requires a new style of management, one that guides rather than controls, one that requires relationship management and emotional intelligence, one in which the manager's job is to motivate rather than control.

New ways of working are colliding head-on with old ways of doing things.

After all, how many managers do you know who feel entirely at ease managing people whom they hardly see, still less whom they cannot control? Remote management is in some ways harder than day-to-day management and certainly more demanding.

There are also no clear-cut answers to the flex-exec dilemma. Not all work can be done away from head office - much depends on effective teamwork, and building teams requires time spent together, bonding closely. When your team-mates are no longer in the lifeblood of the organisation, it is not easy to pull together.

All the signs are that outsourcing and developing flexible relationships with employees and third-party suppliers will become commonplace in tomorrow's organisations. And as the world of work becomes much more networked and mobile, it follows that our organisational forms will change.

Tomorrow's organisation looks set to have a strong inner core with outer layers of multiple relationships. This is not in itself good or bad, but it poses new challenges. And creating a culture that embraces flexibility is just one of them. Watch this space.

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