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Overcome barriers to flexible working

More businesses are reaping the rewards of flexible working, but there are challenges to overcome.

Increasingly, work is something people do, rather than somewhere they go.

Business has woken up to the savings and productivity benefits of giving its people the tools to work flexibly, allowing them to fit their work in no matter where they might be geographically or when it might be convenient to do it.

However, some significant challenges still remain.

While flexible working is not a new concept for SMEs, research shows that a large proportion are yet to get there.

According to a recent survey of UK office workers by Microsoft, more than half of UK workers are still required to work all of their hours from the office, despite 80 per cent of employers with a mobile workforce say it had a positive effect on their business.

So what’s making SMEs hesitate to adopt flexible working? I believe that if flexible working is to become the norm, attitudes towards collaboration at a distance need to change.

Here are three of the most common questions we hear when talking to SME customers about their ways of working.

1. How can I ensure my people still feel like part of a cohesive team?

Again, let’s think about how this is achieved in office scenarios. Most managers will encourage a healthy element of teambuilding and socialising among colleagues, setting time aside for this.

While there may be an element of forced fun about it, any successful leader will know the huge benefits this time can have on building a motivated team, and this is no different when it comes to working at a distance.

Those who have used video conferencing technology in the right way understand the capacity it has for connecting people at a distance while drastically increasing efficiency compared with travelling to meet in person. The ability to put a face to a voice, read body language and share immersive visual presentations can go a long way towards connecting people and making them feel part of the same team.

2. How can I keep my team motivated if they are all in different locations?

The answer here is that the tactics that keep motivation and productivity high are no different for remote workers than they are for those sharing an office – you just need to be able to avoid the ‘out-of-sight-out-of-mind’ mentality.

The key is constant communication and availability. If you’re working with somebody remotely, you need to be accessible with the same level of immediacy as you would be in the office. Having regular catch ups to make sure everything is on track is crucial.

This can take discipline, but the reliability and capabilities of today’s communications tools mean the difference is not as big as it once was.

In addition to the phone, there is now a plethora of instant messaging and collaboration apps aimed specifically at working teams, and these can bring a sense of close working to people not physically in the same space. Stripping out the communication delay is key.

Another interesting development are ‘virtual presence’ tools, for example where a tablet is mounted on a moving stand allowing an off-site colleague to move virtually around a physical workspace and interact with others. While these present the possibility of making remote workers more engaged, only time will tell if they are set to become widely adopted or consigned to the scrapheap of novelty technologies.

3. How can I provide effective training and development for people that may never be in the same physical space?

This is perhaps the easiest of these three questions to answer. Why? Because training is arguably one of the biggest success stories for use of advanced communication tools among the workforce.

It just makes sense for both parties. For training providers tasked with reaching customers in locations across the country or even around the world, the cost and time saving of conducting sessions remotely rather than travelling from site to site are significant to say the least. Equally, workers can receive training at their desk, rather than needing to spend a day out of the office getting to and from an external location.

And, today advanced video conferencing platforms deliver much of the same functionality as you’d get in a physical training space. This includes the ability to display an almost unlimited range of media in their presentations and interaction with participants so the presenter can view the body language of those undergoing training and respond to any questions.

However, arguably there is one major barrier that continues to prevent video conferencing – ease of use.

Compare the technology to the telephone, which despite being 140 years old is still the go-to tool for most people to communicate in non-written form.

Why is this? The answer is that it just works. Unless the person you’re trying to reach is on another call, you can be almost guaranteed that you’ll get through to them and the line will stay open as long as you need it.

Most video conferencing platforms – even stripped down consumer-grade tech like Apple’s FaceTime and Skype – are a long way from delivering this level of reliability.

I believe that if this issue could be overcome, video conferencing has the potential to become the new norm. So how can this be done?

The technology needs to be able to adapt to the systems and networks that are available to users, and not the other way around. The reality is that not everyone has a super-fast internet connection or a new computer, and these are the limiting factors that so often cause connections to drop out.

I believe the benefits of flexible working are well understood by many SME managers, but new attitudes towards flexible working need to go hand in hand with more reliable technology, and one will drive the other.

As businesses large and small wake up to the efficiency gains that are available through remote working, the current generation of communications technology – so vulnerable to poor networks and outdated hardware – will be revealed as not fit for purpose.

The next generation of technology needs to just work – first time, every time.

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