Workspace: You Can Go Your Own Way

Workspace: You Can Go Your Own WaytcbrPDF normal

There are as many ways to get work done as there are workers.

By Alison Maitland

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Alison Maitland is co-author of Future Work, which has just been published in an expanded second edition, and Why Women Mean Business. A former longtime writer and editor for the Financial Times, she directs The Conference Board's Council for Diversity in Business and is a senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School, London. She can be reached via

Alison Maitland

It’s time that companies did some joined-up thinking about the future of work. In the age of “anytime, anywhere” work, many employers know they cannot cling forever to an industrial-age model, requiring people to swipe in and out of the office at fixed hours, day in, day out. But in an effort to modernize, companies are hampering their efforts by viewing new work practices through a single lens—either as an HR initiative, an IT issue, or a real-estate-reduction exercise. The digital-age work model should be all these and more.

As my co-author Peter Thomson and I researched the new edition of Future Work, it became clear that a more holistic approach to how we go about our jobs is a key missing link for many organizations seeking to adopt new ways of working. The silos and fiefdoms that stand in the way of sharing good ideas in big hierarchical organizations are holding back the wholesale change that’s needed.

In some cases, a narrow focus on cost-cutting leads to disillusionment and backlash as businesses forget about employees’ needs. In one financial-services company, for example, management hailed the move to “hot-desking” offices in a new quarter of town as a great leap forward for efficiency. But they had failed to get staff on board. The move left many people marooned from favorite shops and lunchtime haunts in the old quarter and with a sense of identity loss in new offices where the company discouraged personal items on desks. For them, the benefits were not at all obvious.

In other cases, employers waste time and effort on parallel initiatives. For instance, a “smart work” drive aimed at cutting office space and a “flexible working” program designed to retain talent can sometimes vie for attention and resources in different parts of the business, rather than be elements of a larger collaboration for the benefit of the company.

Stepping into the brave new world of work therefore demands a shift of culture and mindset: Managers need to be confident enough to liberate their teams to work in ways that works best, which is frequently not the old way. Employees need to take on greater responsibility for delivering results, without the boss checking their every move. And senior leaders need to be the driving force, so that key functions and business units work together rather than pull in different directions.

This is what they’re trying at Swiss Re, a 150-year-old reinsurance company, which has recently adopted—and trademarked—an innovative work model called “Own the Way You Work.” It’s about working smarter, not longer, and managing by results, not face time. The focus is on team members collectively devising new, better ways to work, for themselves and the business.

It didn’t start that way. The early impetus was an internal call for tools to support flexible working aimed at attracting and keeping women, a well-worn and well-meaning approach but one that often fails to dent the traditional work model. Swiss Re’s global head of diversity and inclusion, Nia Joynson-Romanzina, saw the request as an opportunity to do something much bigger and “future-driven” that could benefit not only women but the organization’s entire workforce. She sought executive buy-in and joined forces with other Swiss Re leaders, and as a result, the company is currently rolling out the program across international operations.

A similar approach took place at Unilever, which embarked on its “Agile Working” strategy a couple of years earlier and now has a lot of experience under its belt. Responsibility for implementation lies with a cross-functional team comprising heads of HR, finance, and enterprise and technology. Communications has also played an important role in getting the culture-change message out. The business goals of the initiative are environmentally sustainable growth, cost-cutting, and talent attraction and retention. Hence, campaign slogans proclaim: “Ideas can fly without a plane” and “Don’t freeze when it snows.” In other words, working from home is fine.

While Unilever would not claim that shifting the culture has been easy, the company has already seen significant benefits: increased productivity, business continuity in the face of major external disruption, and savings in costs and carbon footprint. One of the most interesting challenges—and opportunities—has been dealing with differences between individuals. The traditional one-size-fits-all model of work minimizes individual differences and tends to squeeze out those unwilling or unable to conform. But the new environment of individual autonomy and accountability is not plain-sailing for everyone either. Some people need more support, or guidance, than others. Some managers (mistakenly) see this as a chance to insist that their teams be available 24/7. A few employees will claim entitlement to being “out of office” on fixed days, regardless of the rest of the team. Unless there is clarity about boundaries and responsibilities, new bad habits can quickly replace old ones.

Meanwhile, corporations must rightly emphasize cross-cultural awareness for managers of virtual teams operating across different countries and time zones. But there’s also a need to consider different personality types if we want to optimize collaboration and communication, whether in physical or virtual settings. Here too, it’s important for companies to operate in a joined-up way. Occupational psychologists and diversity-and-inclusion specialists are useful partners for designers and architects when planning new workspaces, or for team leaders considering the right mix of media for interacting with their colleagues.

In a previous column, I referred to research by Nigel Oseland, an environmental psychologist and workplace strategist, on the different collaboration spaces preferred by extroverts versus introverts. Recently, Oseland looked at individual preferences based on other personality traits on behalf of Herman Miller, the office-furniture-design firm. He found that people who are especially creative and artistic (the ones who actually design offices!) prefer to meet face-to-face in informal places such as bars, cafés, and “huddle spaces,” while those who are more closed-minded dislike informal meeting spaces. Also, people who are more agreeable in nature prefer meeting in groups to generate ideas, although they like to socialize one-to-one.

So, as the trend continues toward “activity-based working,” where people can move around an office building and choose the setting most appropriate to the task in hand—café, quiet area, large meeting room, etc.—the next step, according to Oseland, is to design not just for different tasks but for different people. He points out that we “need to provide work spaces that accommodate all personality types and suit the introverts, conscientious and more neurotic, rather than simply build stimulating, open-plan, buzzy environments that best suit extroverts. We need to be cognizant that while we can facilitate behavior change through design, some work settings will never be favored by some of our workforce.”

Individualism is becoming a hallmark of the new age of work. As one executive puts it, management in the future will have to be one-on-one, and managers need to learn how to do this. “‘Everybody wants to be treated as special,” she said. “Companies need to find a way to handle each individual and respond to what’s important to them.”


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