A 7-step approach to deciding the where and when of work
Smart Working involves the option of working at different times, in different places and using different tools and process to do so. It involves new techniques for collaboration. And it can also involve choices around different work patterns such as reduced hours and job-share, using Smart Working principles.
Putting these new options and techniques into practice involves taking a good look at the way people work and thinking through how it can be done in ways that are smarter.
This can be challenging, as it involves thinking in new ways about the nature of the work being done and how different tasks make up a role, and in some cases how work activities are shared across the team.
Here we look at how to approach analysing the work your team does and 7 steps to work out how much of it can be done on a more flexible and mobile basis.
Step 1 – Set out the activities involved in a role
Few roles consist of one single activity that absolutely requires work at a particular time and a particular place. Most consist of a range of activities, such as:
- Hands-on work with equipment or facilities
- Analysing information
- Writing reports
- Providing information to others
- Maintaining systems or products
- Developing new ideas
- Managing others
- Processing data
- Collaborating with colleagues informally
- Having internal meetings
- Dealing with customers in person
- Dealing with customers by phone
- Dealing with customers online.
Make a list of the activities involved in your work as an individual or the work of your team. Some of these activities may be quite generic, while others might be more specific like working with data in a specific system or supporting customers in a specific context.
Step 2 – Examine how time-specific and place-specific the tasks involved are
Once you’ve identified the kinds of tasks involved, a good next step is to look at how time-specific and place-specific they are.
That is, does the work need to be done at a specific time, or is the exact time the work is done less important, as long as it is done by a certain deadline?
Then ask the same kind of question about the location of work. Do the work activities have to be done at a specific place? Are they done at a specific place, like in the office, out of necessity or is it just the way it has always been done?
It’s useful then to plot the activities on a grid-like the one below to get a measure of how fixed the activities are in time and space:
So, time-specific work might include dealing with calls in a contact centre or providing emergency support services. One has to be available at agreed times in order to talk with customers. The exact time a task is done may be less important, on the other hand, for activities like data processing or writing a report. It will have a deadline, but exactly when it is done leading up to the deadline is less important.
Location-specific work could include activities like hands-on engineering work, or reception work. Sometimes this encompasses all or most of a role, but not always. For example, a receptionist may have some other administrative duties as well that might be more time variable.
Most knowledge work can in principle be carried out from anywhere. As they say, “work is what you do, not where you go”. As long as you have the systems and tools to do the work elsewhere and a supportive environment of trust, the work becomes location variable. That doesn’t mean it has to be done elsewhere, as there may be other factors involved such as collaboration needs – see step 4 for that.
For some activities it may be possible to vary the location within the site, but not beyond. This constraint on mobility could be noted on the grid by rating the activity as being a 3 rather than a 5, for example.
Step 3 – Challenge assumptions about how work is done
Carrying out an exercise like step 2 will generate many discussions about how, where and when work is done. It should also be an opportunity to look at:
- how work can be done more effectively by working smarter
- how work activities are grouped together in particular roles, and if a little reordering could increase flexibility (see step 5)
- how future changes to technologies, workplaces and working practices could change how work is carried out.
So to take one of the examples from Step 2, it may be that certain types of processing work are always done in the office. This, however, may be a legacy from the days of paper filing. With electronic systems, the need to be in a specific place should not be so pressing.
Similarly, who does which tasks may be based on the way the work has evolved over time. But is there any pressing need for the tasks under consideration to be specific to one person? Moving from rigid divisions of work, from ‘my work’ to ‘our work’ is often a feature of Smart Working. (This kind of consideration is also extremely important when it comes to patterns of work such as reduced hours or job share.)
When carrying out the exercise in Step 2, it’s a good idea where appropriate to draw arrows across the grid where an activity could become more time-variable or location-variable if we were to change the way we work.
Step 4 – Assessing interaction factors
One of the main determinants of where and when we work is often the need to interact with other people. This may be interaction with:
- Customers, suppliers and partners
- Other team members
- Manager or supervisor – or the people you are managing/supervising
- Interaction with physical places or equipment.
With Smart Working, collaborative interaction can be through many channels other than being physically face-to-face.
And with Smart Working, management by line-of-sight (management by presence) is replaced with management by results. Command and control are replaced by empowerment and trust.
So in this context, there is greater scope for people to work at different times and different places, as long as the systems for managing and monitoring work are in place.
Assessing the interaction factors, then, is about evaluating whether:
- There are genuine constraints on the interaction that require the activity being done at a specific place, a specific time, and by a specific person (such as the demands of a client)
- There is significant added value by interacting in particular ways (such as when having introductory meetings in person, or brainstorming a new product, or carrying out appraisals).
By flexing the collaboration techniques, many activities can be carried out in much more flexible ways. It doesn’t mean the team never meets – but it does mean that routine interaction doesn’t become an obstacle to working smarter. (For more, see the module on Rethinking Meetings) [link to resource 13].
For interaction with physical places or equipment, there may be less scope for varying the place of work. However, remote monitoring and diagnostics can change the imperatives of where work is done. So there may be scope for innovation in how work is done which can introduce efficiencies as part of working smarter.
Step 5 – Assessing the security and confidentiality issues involved in activities
There may be some issues around data security or confidentiality that constrain the range of locations where work can be done. For example, working on sensitive data or having calls about sensitive or confidential issues in public places may not be appropriate, whereas at other offices or in a private space at home these activities might be fine.
These are also considerations to take into account when working in different places in the office. For example, some activities might not be appropriate in a breakout area, but should take place in an enclosed booth.
The general principle, however, is that risk should be managed, rather than using potential risk as a reason for making work patterns inflexible.
Step 6 – Putting it all together
After working through these steps, you can list the activities involved in a role in the Work Activity Smart Flexibility Assessment Template in the Toolkit.
Then you will clearly be able to see how location and time variable the work is by its nature, the key interaction needs, whether and how activities can be shared or repackaged, and what changes need to be made to in order to enable Smart Working to have maximum effectiveness – or whether there are just too many constraints at this stage to allow the work to be carried out in a different way.
Other modules in the Toolkit tackle the key issues about how to change working practices, teamwork, collaboration and management to support smart working in the best ways.
Step 7 – Continuous improvement
Examining all the activities in a role or in the team’s work should not only be about finding a little more flexibility here and there for existing ways of working.
So when considering how work is done, seek out every opportunity to improve working processes and practices to make work more effective and efficient.
This is an involving and empowering process that seeks new ideas from all involved in doing the work.
As time moves on, there will be new possibilities, new techniques and technologies for working smarter. It’s not about finding a once-and-for-all solution, but about being open to continuing change based on the Smart Working Principles.