Work is an activity, not a place: Thoughts from a Flexible Working convert

Since I started my own business in January 2015 I’ve become a Flexible Worker. I no longer have a single place I call work, but rather work is an activity. I’ve found I can work anywhere at almost any time. And, rather than becoming less effective, I am now more productive than ever. 

This didn’t come naturally to me. After 20 years of working for The Man (various men, actually), I was used to the ritual of going into the office when I wasn’t travelling for work. I worked in various open plan offices for 17 years. I thought at the time that I was a little bit special because I really struggled to focus and work effectively with all the noise around me. As a Head of Department it also seemed reasonable for people to walk up to my desk to interrupt me. And when I wasn’t in an open plan environment I was in a meeting.

I had to find my own workarounds to try to be productive, including hiding in meeting rooms (something I recommend) and working longer hours (something I don’t). This in itself contributed to my decision to set up on my own — imagine what I could do if all my energy was spent doing something for me, for my family business, rather than someone else’s?

But then a funny thing started to happen…the more I worked whenever and wherever I wanted, the more productive I became. So now I need less time to work in. Even though I’m still working hard, often working long hours, I have more time and flexibility to do other things when I want or need to. Like visit my toddler nieces for a day in the week or go to the cinema in the afternoon. I have a much more fulfilled, more balanced life yet I’m still producing results and keeping clients happy.

Has it ever struck you how very odd our expectations are of how most people should earn their monthly salary in the information economy?

  • We check what time people come in and go out of the office, as if they’re still in school. Even when in all other respects we want them to act like grown adults.
  • We don’t focus on people’s outputs, on whether they get the job done, but rather on how long they spend doing it, and especially on how long they’re in the office for.
  • We put people in giant noisy (or oppressively quiet) open plan rooms together and expect them to concentrate, to be focussed, to have difficult phone conversations, even to do creative or analytical work. I now know I’m not alone in being unable to do this. There’s plenty of research out there showing that open plan offices are the Dementors of productivity (and collaboration, according to this Auckland University report).

The first step of being able to work more flexibly is to identify what you need in your working environment. The work of Susan Cain and others around the benefits and needs of introverts in the workplace is helping to galvanise this discussion. This is because it resonates with most of us, particularly when we want to do focussed work. Rarely is a person a 100% introvert or extrovert. We all naturally have different needs at different times when it comes to working productively.

Office designers and companies need to put more thought into what kind of productive environments they are building when they set up an office. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time working in the new IKEA Hubhult office in Hyllie, Sweden. There you can see they really thought about the whole environment as a flexible working space, as a truly global meeting and working hub. There are the usual meeting rooms of different sizes (including stand up 10-minute ones), but there are nooks, windowseats, living room sets, a giant tier of stairs to perch on, work on, chat to people on. You can work in a corner with a laptop on a different floor without someone thinking you’re hiding from them (though you probably are).

This works for IKEA because they have a culture that encourages flexible working. Research shows that if companies don’t truly embrace a real flexible working culture (including allowing people to work both in and out of an office) even the most innovative office environment won’t encourage productivity. Some well-meaning companies have arguably exacerbated the problem using architecture: they build fantastic-looking offices with play spaces, fussball machines, beanbags, artificial grass so you feel like you’re having fun. Only you’re not. You’re being drawn in to seeing work as a place and not an activity. You’re being encouraged to actually stay longer at “work”, but not necessarily to be productive or creative in that time. Just be there. As long as possible. Absorbing the brand, the culture, the fun atmosphere, the implied creativity.

The problem with seeing work as a place is that it’s then important to be seen in the place to be perceived as working.

If you think this isn’t true, think…have you’ve ever worked somewhere where they used air fairies to talk about someone “working from home”? I know I have. Like everyone knows that’s a secret code for, “I’m actually watching back-to-back episodes of Orange is the New Black in my pyjamas.” (I recommend you do this at least one day of your life, by the way.) And if we do work from home we have to make sure everyone hears how productive we were when we come back in: “I really did get such a lot of work done at home. No distractions…”

Many offices, whether well designed or not, still have a ‘macho’ work culture: who will crack first and go home? More detrimentally, this is also set as the yardstick of a worker’s commitment to the company. I know…I’ve even thought this myself before.

This all indicates an outdated paternalistic and even patriarchal way of setting up a working environment. I mean this literally — it’s based upon a post-industrial era of men working set hours in an office in an hierarchical structure. Then going home for non-work time. And men could do this, because women stayed at home, looked after the children and had a meal ready for whenever you walked in the door from the office.

When you think about it, such an office environment is the ultimate ‘working man’s club’: it’s where you’re expected to spend at least your 9-to-5 if you’re really committed to your company. Only we’re not in Mad Men in 1967 any more…It’s 2017. Yet many companies are still using this model (apart from the smoking and drinking in the office part, which was probably the best bit).

For many people who don’t want to live in their company office, and can’t even get their best work done there, this simply can’t be the measure of their commitment to the company, or an indicator of how productive or efficient they are. This is probably the majority of people over 30, who have a life, interests, family commitments and responsibilities outside of work. But specifically this lack of a flexible work model affects women over 30. For one obvious reason…

Still in our society women have the bulk of the caring responsibilities in the family (whether children or elders, and if you’re really lucky, both) to fit around their work. According to the Lean In and McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2016 report, women in the US in senior management are seven times more likely than men to bear the majority of home duties. If they want to work flexibly, women are often still limited to mostly part-time, lower paid work with fewer benefits (seen any part-time/flexible working Heads of Department or Director roles recently?).

Assuming we’re not going to change the gender imbalance of workloads in families any time soon (even though it would benefit us all), companies offering genuinely flexible work can help women who want to continue their career paths. This level of diversity at all areas of a business is already being linked to improved business results: Diversity makes companies measurably more successful.

We have the solution to Flexible Working staring us in the face every day. 

We all know that technology has now given us most of the tools we need to truly work flexibly, at times and places to suit us and our productivity cycle. But so far for the office worker each of these advances feels like it has added to their workload. Companies clinging to the old ‘work is a place’ model realised they could also encourage flexible working (to suit them) by providing you with the tools to also work outside the office: Now we have laptops we can work from home over the weekend, now we have smartphones we’re expected to answer emails out of office hours, etc…

It strikes me that people feel negatively about flexible working because we’re trying to keep 2 different work definition models operating in parallel, instead of abandoning the old one. In other words, most companies haven’t quite got around to the other side of the equation yet — to release you from the office environment. In a paternalistic culture, companies imagine terrible things would happen if you were able to walk in and out of the office like a grown up to suit the rest of your life.

If we’re to really embrace the wonderful life-changing benefits we could all have in truly working flexibly, we need to address both how we work and also where and when we work most productively. We need to break away from decades of tradition to change the definition of what we call work. We need to move from counting hours worked to being judged on outputs; from sitting at a desk for set hours to producing the quality results expected of your role at a time to better suit you and your commitments. The new model of flexible working hinges on this: it needs to be flexible working to suit the worker’s life, too.