Blogs & Thoughts

New ways of working and clocking off

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should – new ways of working and clocking off.

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  • Author Chris Carr
  • Date 18 March 2020
  • Read Time 5.5 minutes
Man working late

“Any time, any place, anywhere – that’s Martini.”

The phrase brings back memories of the 60s and 70s. But it’s also very relevant to the new ways of working and the changing landscape of the office.

Is the above mantra a good one, however?

In the knowledge economy, the era of the ‘9-5’ working day is long gone for a significant percentage of the workforce – only 6%, according to a YouGov poll published just this week, still put in a ‘traditional’ working day. Definitely in the private sector, but also in the public sector, people are now working longer and longer hours. Gone are the days when the office equivalent of the factory whistle was the 5pm cacophony of chairs scraping against wooden floors as workers made the dash to the exit and their commute home. The other office characteristic that thankfully seems to be dying out is the ‘macho’ mentality of arriving first to an empty office and staying later than everyone else, switching the light off as you leave; though granted this was often to do with more practical issues like getting a spot in the car park or being able to find a seat on the train or bus.

Work and the workplace has changed and will continue to do so. Results are everything now, how you achieve them is (slightly) less important. It is fundamental to the new working mindset. When we engage with our clients we talk of opportunities to do more with less (e.g. sharing of physical resources, making the office more efficient). Does this only apply to the physical workplace?

Taking this efficiency drive one step further, could we, as a nation, be more productive with a shorter* working week? It’s a discussion that crops up every now and then, but perhaps, we need to think it through more carefully as it might end up having the opposite effect on wellbeing as intended – more later. *This does not always mean fewer working hours, but the same ’40-hour’ week spread over four days instead of five. For the time being anyway, the majority of staff in the UK will be stuck with some form of 5-day-week, and this will overwhelmingly be Mon-Fri.

Rather than working shorter hours as Keynes predicted, we are working even more (or are at least in the workplace for longer – hence the much alluded-to productivity gap). Thankfully there is a desire by most progressive employers (and encouraged by designers) to provide a workplace that promotes staff health and wellbeing; there is no doubting the importance of a considered working environment, but is there a ‘hidden’ agenda to make the workplace more comfortable and therefore (subconsciously) encourage staff to spend even more time in the office? I’d like to think not, and that it is more to do with it making good business sense to treat your staff well.

But what of the workplaces that go the extra mile in terms of comfort, are they encouraging a healthy attitude to work? At least one of the large technology organisations in London (the name escapes me) has an on-site chef cooking healthy meals for staff; does another have a workplace launderette or am I just imagining it? Maybe in London this provision of facilities is more relevant, where accommodation costs for young workers are such that a more social and sociable working environment often replaces comfortable living space at home; staff prefer to stay in the office longer. But up here in Scotland? Maybe less so. I think it’s great to offer your staff an inspiring, comfortable workplace, but I don’t want to be still in the office at 8pm on a regular basis. And I definitely don’t want to be doing my laundry near my colleagues.

The other way we subconsciously permit people to work longer is to give them the technology to work remotely. For some sections of the workforce this technology assists with flexible working and does have a real part to play in promoting equality in the workplace. For others it does mean it’s very easy to do a few additional hours at home. This then opens up a whole other debate about time management and the inexorable rise of prevarication, but that’s for another day.

Employers profess concern for the work-life balance even though, as we read in the workplace consultancy blogs and journals, there is no such thing as the work-life balance anymore. It is the work-life blend, and this is evidenced by the increasingly common staff survey responses of “we need more spaces for private or confidential phone calls”. This work-life blend is of course impacting on office design with designers responding to these requests with the creation of ‘acoustic nooks’ or the provision of semi-enclosed furniture elements.

We have wonderful working environments. We have laptops and VPN. We have flexible working. Place, technology and people; three interlocking circles contributing to new ways of working, and in most cases smarter ways of working. Do we have the correspondingly enlightened management and working protocols however?

At 4:30pm I’m nearing the end of my normal working day, often looking to push work out the door to hit a COB deadline; granted I’m often in the office for another 90-minutes or so after that. I’m also conscious of the fact that if I do send an e-mail at that time of day I run the risk of not getting a response until the following morning. I might get a reply before I go home, but I certainly wouldn’t castigate anyone for taking the time to consider their response and not replying immediately.

For the home-worker or flexible-worker who, due to family commitments or choice, is putting in the same number of hours per week but made up of different chunks of time, their ‘4:30pm e-mail’ might be sent at 8pm. Should they expect an answer when their e-mail pops up on my phone? Consider also the workaholic who takes the laptop home and puts in a few extra hours, similarly sending out an e-mail at 8pm. Are they too expecting a response before the following morning?

Does any time, any place, anywhere mean responding to e-mails also any time? I hope not and hope that managers put protocols in place to ensure that staff don’t feel pressured into responding. We need therefore to educate staff to work in a new way, and how to work with colleagues who may have a different daily routine.

Perhaps Outlook will need to start putting a ‘send tomorrow at 9am’ button on their standard ‘home’ page.

(Oh, and by the way, I am a complete hypocrite. I wrote part of this at home at 9pm. And I checked my e-mails while doing so!)

Chris Carr, Associate Workplace Consultant

Chris arrived in workplace consultancy following stints as a scientist in the USA and a tour guide in Greece. He is passionate about the interaction between people and the workspaces they inhabit. Over the past six years, he has worked with numerous clients to help them envisage more effective and engaging spaces.