Activity-based work gives employees the choice of how, when and where they work. This is something that Generation Y – those born between 1965 and 1980 – instigated.
They had seen how employers had treated their parents; how Generation X had devoted itself to one company for most of its working life, only to be tossed on the trash heap when the jobs that they thought they had for life suddenly disappeared.
It was a direct result of growing up in such circumstances, that Generation Y learned that employers couldn’t be trusted and that they would have to make their own way in life if they were going to make it at all.
So it was natural for them to tailor their work according to their own personal needs rather than to those of their employers.
Many Generation X-ers had felt that way for some time, but were powerless to do anything about it. They, too, thought it was insane to finish their work at three, for example, and then have to pretend to be busy until five because that’s when they clocked off. It was even worse in the public sector where the goal seemed to be to stay busy without every finishing.
When the employers broke the psychological contract in the mid-1980s, it opened the way for workers to dictate the conditions under which they were willing to work.
The imbalance was about to change.
Do only what is necessary
Generation Y changed the working relationship between employers and employees by focussing on the activities that were required to get the job done. They didn’t object to working, but they disliked intensely wasting their time.
Flex-time came in under their watch. Many of them made it clear that they weren’t going to trade family time for board meetings and that they were willing to forego promotions if they were forced to make a choice. Employees expected employers to be willing to let them arrange their work schedules around their families.
We take these things for granted now, but in the 1980s and 1990s, they were nothing less than revolutionary.
In recent years, it’s been interesting to see how organisations have responded to this. At first they were resistant. Some still are. Despite views to the contrary, however, it’s often those at the top who are unwilling to change; not those they supervise. If you doubt this, then just ask your own people what they would change given the opportunity.
That said, activity-based work is now becoming more widely accepted. That may be due to the fact that there is a critical mass of Generation Y-ers who are now in positions of authority. To use a well-worn expression, a tipping point may have been reached.
Working from home
One change that has occurred, not least because of the Internet, is that more people are working outside of the office.
Research has demonstrated, for example, that people get more done when they can work from home, or when they can arrange their work around their lives instead of the other way around.
That’s because they have fewer interruptions. They don’t have people walking up to their desks for a “quick question” or telephoning them. There isn’t the constant background noise that offices create either.
They can work the hours that suit their temperament and personalities, too. Many people aren’t at their best at eight or nine in the morning. They would do much better if they could work from say ten to seven or eight in the evening. Others like being up early – really early. They’d rather work from six or seven until three or four in the afternoon. That’s much easier to do from home.
Working from home obviates the problem of sitting next to someone whose habits are disagreeable to you. If you read the stories of writers, you’ll discover that some like to listen to classical music; others heavy metal. Some want to work in complete silence.
Working from home gives you that choice.
There are other benefits for organisations, too.
In most cases, it costs less to have them work from home. That’s because they don’t have to provide a desk, never mind heat, electricity, and a loo.
All they have to do is trust their employees.
It’s possible that you don’t feel that such a system would work because you can’t trust those who work for you. That rather begs the questions, doesn’t it? Just why are they working for you if you can’t trust them? If that’s why you keep them in the office, then you need to recognise that rather than being an employer, you’re really a babysitter. You certainly are acting like one.
On the other hand, there may be a very good reason why people in your organisation can’t work from home. It could be that the nature of the job prevents them from doing so: Factories, construction, flesh-based education, etc. fall into this category.
But where computers are the principle tool, there’s no reason why people should be expected to go to the office to use them if they don’t want to.
And the thing is that those who work from home also don’t have to worry about a long commute. That means that they’re not tired or stressed. They can prepare physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually in the way that suits them the best.
There’s another benefit to letting your people work from home, and that is that they can do their work even if they don’t feel 100%.
Admit it, there are people who come to work who are so sick that they are in danger of infecting the whole office. All that sneezing and coughing does no one any good. Not only do you risk a small epidemic, it’s distracting to be around it. In other words, it reduces everyone’s productivity.
If they were working from home, it wouldn’t matter.
If they’re bedridden, then that’s a different story; but then they wouldn’t be in the office anyway.
It’s when employees have to face getting dressed, and then travelling for an hour or longer that they are more likely to call in sick; and if you have refused to let them work from home, then you’ve needlessly lost their productivity for that day.
Will there be people who abuse the system? Sure. But they only get 31 days in which to do it. After that, in most cases, they’re on leave without pay. So it really doesn’t matter if they use up their days by pretending to be sick or taking holiday time.
It goes back to that trust issue.
Giving your employees the liberty to work when, where, and how they want to will reduce turnover. People like working where they have more control over their lives.
When you have that kind of flexibility, you soon realise that you could do a lot worse by working somewhere else.
Just ask your mates.
How do you approach it?
Ask yourself these questions:
· What would this place look like if we focussed on activity-based work; if, for example, we let people work from home? The answer is more about the overall feel, than appearance.
· How could we reduce the size of the office? This is especially appropriate if you’re renting space in a business centre. If some of your staff worked from home, then you wouldn’t need such a large unit.
· How could we set up a home office for someone? Here it’s just a case of finding out what your employees already have at home and then deciding what you need to bridge the gap.
Nowadays, most people have Wi-Fi or at least a broadband connection into their house or flat. It wouldn’t break the bank for you to help them tap into it for work.
Then, you could ask these questions:
· What is the minimum number of people we would need in the office? There aren’t many who think their offices are large enough when they have to share that space with others.
· How many days of the week would we actually need everyone here? Maybe the answer would be zero. Maybe you’d only need to have a monthly meeting.
· Who, right now, would probably be the most interested in this kind of arrangement? Start with those who want to do it. As the word spreads, others may decide to join them.
And instead of thinking about all the reasons why you think it won’t work, you need to be dwelling on all the reasons why it would. This will help you to find ways to make it happen.
If you’re still not sure, then make a comparison between the cost of setting them up at home and the expense of keeping them in the office. The lowest score wins.
When you do your sums, be sure to include the cost of replacing the person if he / she left. Remember that those who are looking for flexibility will probably want to work from home.
And by the way, home could be in a coffee shop, too. It’s doesn’t have to be in their house. If all they’re using is a laptop and an Internet connection, then provided they connect securely, it shouldn’t be an issue.
Other ways to do activity-based work
Activity-based work is also not limited to working from home. It can also mean working from a variety of stations within an organization; that is – not owning a desk, but roaming around the company, sitting and plugging in wherever and whenever.
This approach gives teams within an organization the flexibility to get together and work. Instead of booking a meeting room, they could simply find each other and plug in to a workstation. In order for this to be achievable, you need to have an intranet.
When is a good time to change to activity-based work?
How about now?
It’s always a good time to do it. There’s no need to wait for a significant event.
There’s also no need to let everyone do it simultaneously, or even at all. Some parts of your organisation may lend themselves to this kind of arrangement better than others.
Here in the UK, that’s a difficult approach to take. There’s a mind-set in this country that says that everyone should be the same. It’s a myth. Everyone is different. We need to recognize this and use it to help us, rather than try to suppress it.
Some people will be able to handle the responsibility that comes from this level of flexibility. Others won’t; but that’s no reason to penalize the more mature.
Once you’ve decided it’s the right thing to do, do it as quickly as possible. Plan to do it effectively; but don’t drag your feet implementing it. You will have a window of opportunity – a period when employees are excited and motivated. You want to take advantage of that while it lasts.
The purpose of activity-based work is that the focus is on the work; nothing else. It gives you and those in your organisation the freedom to work at a place, time and location where all of you can function at your best.
And that’s how you increase everyone’s productivity and reduce costs.
Every day that you postpone making the switch to activity-based work, you are limiting the overall productivity of your organisation and allowing costs to rise.
Think about the implications of that.
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