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Smarter working needs smarter thinking

Cover of  by Dave Coplin

Giving a workforce laptops and mobile phones will not make it work smarter unless good processes and practices to underpin the technology are firmly in place

Smarter working needs smarter thinking

Giving a workforce laptops and mobile phones will not make it work smarter unless good processes and practices to underpin the technology are firmly in place

Smarter working According to Microsoft research, 77% of workers surveyed felt a productive day in the office was spent ?clearing email.? Photograph: PhotoAlto / Alamy/Alamy

The problem with smarter working is that it?s in danger of becoming a buzzword. Like a lot of stock phrases it can mean different things to different people, so it?s worth getting an idea of what it is, and what it isn?t.

Microsoft?s chief envisioning officer Dave Coplin has written two books on the subject. The most recent, The Rise Of The Humans, came out this year.
Coplin believes working smarter is different to working harder. You need to cultivate the ability to think differently about what you need to do, he says. ?Unfortunately, over the years, our definition of productivity has morphed to become much more focused on the ?process? of work rather than the ?outcome?, and this is at the heart of the problem we face in trying to understand how we can work more effectively,? he says.

He cites some curious statistics from his own company?s research. ?Of key concern for me was that from those surveyed, 77% of UK workers felt that a productive day in the office was spent ?clearing email?,? he says. ?This is but one example of the problem of failing to identify smarter working ? since when did the process of work become email itself??

This cuts straight across the popular misconception that technology will in and of itself deliver smarter working. Yes, certainly you can deploy a workforce that is home-based or which performs its tasks entirely in the field, but this won?t necessarily make your staff work better or smarter. This is part of a mindset and therefore a managerial rather than a technical issue.

The manager implementing smarter working can be part of the problem rather than part of a solution. There?s a myth that says managers won?t trust employees they can?t see, so smarter working is doomed from the outset. This is exaggerated according to Microsoft?s research mentioned above - in fact a bigger problem is that colleagues won?t trust the empty seat beside them to represent someone who?s actually working rather than skiving.

However, there?s also the issue of people managing by exception. Andy Lake, director of and author of Smart Flexibility (2013), says legislation even encourages this approach ? for a long time you could ask for flexible working if you had a young family, for example. ?But you can?t have a workforce or workplace strategy based on such a reactive and ad hoc approach, based on granting people permission one at a time,? he says. ?Part of smart working is to have a strategy of ?flexibility as normal?.?

The structure of the workplace, he suggests, militates against a genuinely flexible outlook. ?I?ve seen quite a few organisations aiming to implement smart working circa 2005, and thinking they are being pacesetters,? he says. ?They sweat over things like whether they can desk-share at an 8:10 ratio, how many people should be ?fixed? workers with assigned desks and so on, when their space audits show they have an average 40% desk occupancy. Employers need to look five years ahead and think, ?With all this mobile technology, will we even need desks in 2019?? What kind of working environments will we need then??

One organisation that has implemented smarter working is Plantronics, the acoustic specialist. Facilities manager George Coffin explains that a holistic approach is necessary, focused on the outcome, as Microsoft?s Coplin suggests.
?Smarter working is the use of technology, space and people as one,? he says. ?It?s a matter of finding the correct location or space to carry out the task at hand. A workplace should now be considered as a group of workspaces; spaces suitable to concentrate, collaborate, communicate and contemplate to enable everyone to carry out their task as best as possible.?

He reiterates the idea that working from home isn?t necessarily smarter working as such, although some managers think it is. ?It is however, a part of smarter working, enabling the person to be able to work flexibly and secure a good work life balance,? he says.

So if you had a simple summary of smarter working it might include: putting the task and outcome first rather than having fixed working places and times and getting hung up on processes like emails; involving everybody in any flexibility rather than just (for example) people with families; and taking a root-and-branch approach to redesigning office spaces around the different environments needed for each task. Then ensure that technology underpins all of that rather than putting the IT first.

It?s not a trivial or easy task, but the rewards can be massive.

Guy Clapperton is the co-author of the Smarter Working Manifesto.

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