Interview: Heather Greig

Heather Greig-SmithHeather Greig-Smith is the founder and editor of Flexible Boss – a digital publication for businesses about flexible working. She is a business journalist by trade and Flexible Boss is designed to bring together information and experiences about changing the way we work. You can find her in Twitter at @flexibleboss and @HGreigSmith, as well as in LinkedIn.  

1. What do you do and what’s the goal of your company?

Our audience is made up of HR, technology and real estate/facilities professionals tasked with moving their organisations to an agile way of working. This isn’t always easy and we recognise the challenges but also seek to encourage and inspire.

2. What’s the current status of a “flexible work environment” for companies in the UK, especially regarding “remote” or location independent?

Since June 2014 everyone in the UK who has worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks has what’s called a ‘statutory right to request flexible working’. This doesn’t mean a business has to say yes to a request, but there is a process and timeline they must follow for deciding and communicating with their employer.

In practice, there are mixed experiences. Many UK businesses are forging ahead with new ways of working and gradually untethering people from the office. Others are fiercely guarding their nine to five mentality and are afraid to let go of ‘control’. It’s certainly becoming more common for people to work from home or another location some of the time and travel to an office occasionally.

3. Which type of companies are willing to provide more location independent flexibilities to their teams or directly hiring remotely? Which are the ones that are more non-flexible?

It is hard to generalise. There are some small companies (often tech) who have completely embraced location independence and work hard to form and support their teams in other ways. Likewise some large corporates have adapted well to this – partly because in global teams employees aren’t necessarily co-located even if they do go to the office every day. They are working across timezones successfully.

Yet even inside companies that have openly adopted these practices you can find teams or departments where flexible working is not deemed acceptable – line managers who are resistant can be a total block. Lots of the organisations we speak to are looking at ways to support managers and get past this.

Finally, there are many companies that don’t ‘get’ this agenda and are no-where near adopting flexible practices as part of their approach (beyond what they have to do legally).

4. What are the main arguments that you have seen companies in the UK have against “location independent” & remote work? How do you think that these can be surpassed?

‘How do I know if someone is working if I can’t see them?’ is a common concern. The idea that employees won’t work hard for you if they aren’t in the office is a myth and there are lots of productivity statistics to disprove it. In fact, ensuring your workers make time to relax and don’t burn out is more likely to be the problem.

These worries can be solved by managing by output. For some, who have measured their success by the time their teams are putting into something, this can be a difficult transition. Focusing on what you need your employees to do and how to measure their success and performance based on that is critical.

A couple of years ago, the Agile Future Forum, a collection of UK companies, set out to measure the business benefits of their flexible/agile practices and found they were enjoying benefits equivalent to 3-13% of workforce costs. They also identified further benefits that could be achieved. That’s a powerful message.

Ultimately, organisations need to get to grips with this and the market will eventually force them to do so. If they want the best people and they want them to stay and be productive then they need to offer flexibility.

5. For those companies that you have seen have already become location independent or hired a remote team: Which have been the advantages & disadvantages that they have shared to have found? How they have overcome the challenges?

There are many advantages to this way of working – such as being able to tap into a wider talent pool. Offering employees a work-life blend that works for them means they can be productive and are likely to stay with you for longer. Office costs are reduced or eliminated and teams who work different hours may be able to offer broader coverage to clients.

There are also disadvantages or challenges such as maintaining team connections and ensuring no-one becomes isolated or overworked. Managers need to think carefully about how they manage a remote team, measure performance and deal with problems. To people who work in a tech environment and are already comfortable communicating by IM, video and collaboration tools this may not seem as much of a challenge as to those in more traditional environments.

The successful companies are the ones who put a lot of thought into their culture and how remote working will work for them and their employees. It isn’t as simple as closing the office and letting everyone get on with it.  

6. How the companies that have moved towards a “remote team” or started hiring remotely are able to operate effectively? Have they modified the processes, tools, salaries, benefits, organization and internal activities?

Technology and good management techniques seem to be the most important ingredients here. There are so many collaboration tools now that can offer different team and project experiences and managers need to use them to good effect.

Also, when they are not going into an office every day some people may struggle with the isolation and need help finding alternatives. In these situations great companies bond the team in different ways – by checking in with people regularly, meeting up occasionally and sometimes spending time together socially (even if that’s online).

It will be different for every organisation but for remote working to work, culture, communication and processes need to be thought through.

7. In your case, you also work from home: Which are the tools & processes that you use or help you to work in a flexible and location independent environment?

I like to change my environment depending on my mood and the task I’m working on. Sometimes I co-work with other local businesspeople, sometimes I work in coffee shops or go into central London for meetings. A light laptop and wireless mouse are essential, plus noise cancelling headset for calls.

The technology I use is simple and cloud-based – Trello is fantastic for planning as I can share different boards with freelancers/contractors on a project by project basis, plus we use Dropbox and Google Docs for document collaboration.

I also use a variety of video conferencing /audio call options – Skype, Google Hangouts or Face Time for internal conversations. Then a range of paid for options – often dictated by the client or contact I’m speaking to as many of them are video suppliers. As I write about flexibility and collaboration tools this is a great chance to try different options. All sectors are different but in this industry being comfortable with video is essential.  

8. What would you say to companies that don’t believe to hire employees who work remotely? What suggestions will you give them?

A company that really doesn’t want to hire remote employees probably shouldn’t! Remote working only works well if everyone is committed to it.

If a company is curious but doesn’t know where to begin then it could try experimenting on a team basis. Do some research, be open and honest with all involved and talk about what works and what doesn’t. Some of the companies we speak to started with a trusted employee who had to relocate but they didn’t want to lose. When they found it worked successfully they were happy to roll it out further.

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