Adapt or die – the management challenges of flexible working

May 25 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

The revolution in flexible working could lead to more than half of Britain's middle managers facing the axe if they fail to adapt to the changing nature of work.

According to new research from Henley Management College, British management has reached a crossroads now that the flexible working revolution has taken hold. And as the way that people communicate and collaborate changes, managers who are unable to adapt to new ways of dealing with dispersed teams will be the first to go if economic conditions tighten.

The research, part of the long-term Tomorrow's Work project initiated by Microsoft, argues that the impact of increasing flexibility and mobility is to make the physical office – a container in which information and knowledge is processed - a thing of the past.

With more outsourcing and work being undertaken by people on different kinds of contract, managers will need the ability to motivate and inspire staff who are not core employees. At the same time management will become more about resourcing than about discipline.

British management has reached a crossroads now that the flexible working revolution has taken hold
But while good management practices are needed in the office as well as when managing remotely, the report warns that poor management is more likely to be exposed when flexible working is introduced.

"For years, managers have been used to managing people simply by watching over them," said Peter Thompson, director of the Future Work Forum and project leader for the report.

"With the rise of flexible working, that style will have to completely change or else we face the prospect of managers holding back the tide of flexible working like a modern-day King Canute."

Thompson said that communications, trust and objective setting are critical for managing remote workers, both now and in the future. Mangers also need to agree and measuring outputs rather than when work is carried out.

As one participant in the research put it: "people who manage on the basis of good structure and organisation will have less adjustment than those who manage by human interaction."

But, as Thompson also acknowledged, flexible working does not suit everyone and requires higher levels of self-motivation and initiative.

Ironically, many managers told the Henley researchers that they consider the reliance on IT that flexible working demands as its main disadvantage, because when there are problems with technology the impact is greater than when managing workers in close proximity to the manager.

Another problem for remote workers that emerged in a report published earlier this month by IBM's Institute for Business Value is that isolation from the office makes many feel alienated, underappreciated and mistrusted, even though they often work harder than their office-based colleagues.

In particular, remote workers said that they missed out on the social interaction of office life, leaving them unable to learn about new job opportunities, identify shifts in organisational direction and mobilise resources on an informal basis.

But the benefits of less commuting led to a better work life balance for most employees, although both the IBM and Henley research found that remote workers often worked longer hours in some cases.

Other key organisational advantages of flexible working were staff attraction and retention, the better utilisation of resources over a longer day and the improved customer service that could come about by having people on hand when the business demands it.

But concerningly, none of the companies that took part in the research provide employees or managers with training specifically aimed at flexible working.

In some organisations it was expected that HR would provide advice and guidance, but in only one instance coaching was specifically mentioned for managers who find the adaptation difficult.

Alistair Baker, Microsoft's UK managing director, said: "IT is fundamentally changing the way we work. This creates opportunities for business, but also requires people to adapt if they want to take advantage of them."