Name: Chris Ridgewell
Superpower: Implementing flexible working programs
- Director at Wisework Ltd
- Principal and owner of the Charterhouse Consultants group
- Chairman of The UK Telework Association
“The age difference of the new workforce that comes in with the different generations is often the driving force for change.”
Chris Ridgewell is a co-founder and Director of Wisework, a specialist UK-based management consultancy company that helps organizations plan, implement, and manage their agile/smart-working programs. This can include working both at and from home, using office space more efficiently, mobile working, amongst a myriad of other things. He’s also the Principal and owner at the Charterhouse Consultants group which implements change management programs in large companies and organisations around the world.
Chris is also the Chairman of the UK Telework Association, a membership organization established in 1991 which helps to promote the benefits of flexible working.
On top of all of that, he’s also been involved in helping to convert old farm buildings into modern shared managed offices, including one 15th century barn in Essex that is now being used as a co-working space by staff from at least twenty different employers.
Chris completed his first client’s flexible work project in 1984. So while flexible working is clearly not new, it has changed over the years. In the early 90’s the UK Telework Association was setup mainly to help self employed people, sole traders and the owners of what were then called Telecottages/Telework centers, to set up their businesses and network together. Now, however, flexible working is much more of a business imperative. That can include making better use of real estate, or improving productivity and flexibility in the workforce.
The big gains for business are significant increases in productivity and efficiency in how work is done. This is, in part, due to better staff retention and reduced sickness rates because people have the flexibility of shifting their work patterns to take their children to school, take classes, or whatever it might be. Two years ago, the UK lost about 10.4 million working hours of time because people are sick due to stress and related illnesses. The fact that the company shows a bit of interest in their employees goes a long way. The key thing is actually getting work-life balance. People like to have control over their own time. In addition, people want the opportunity to suggest improvements to the current system.
Besides productivity and efficiency, another key driver is built around property: making better use of legacy buildings or creating more flexibility for how to use the existing workspace. In one area, a local council had around 50 redundant schools that they turned into work hubs and local business start-up centers.
Certainly in the UK, lots of managers in traditional organizations see remote working as a cost, not a business benefit. It is done to appease the employees because they demand it.
It used to be that technology was a bit of a barrier and still is in some ways. Many organization’s structures are still based on working at a fixed time in a fixed place. In addition, they have fixed technology, and there is difficulty managing things like people bringing in their own devices with serious concerns about security, about protecting data and all the legal ramifications around that. It’s almost the industrial revolution type of model, where the information revolution that’s happened has been ignored. The technology has leapt ahead of where most companies are.
The key issue seems to be trust: if I can’t see you, I can’t manage you. People still come out of management schools expecting to fit into a pyramid structure and then work their way up the ladder. That doesn’t happen anymore. They’ve been coached, trained, from birth almost to expect to rise in the organization. It’s a status symbol and there are very few organizations where the status symbol is actually not in the office.
One aspect to be aware of is that many people step in to flexible working without realizing they are generating a culture change in the organization. It takes time to change the culture of an organization.
The biggest change will come from the new generation. It will be interesting to see what happens when the millennials come into the workforce because they will expect flexible/agile working: working where and when they like rather working at a fixed place and at a fixed time. The age difference of the new workforce that comes in with the different generations is often the driving force for change.
How do we know people are working? One angle is making sure that employees know what their targets are, and then trusting that they will meet their objectives and deadlines. However if productivity needs to be measured for any reason, there are a number of software tools, like Asure for example, that can do this. And plenty of them are scalable.
At Charterhouse, employees use electronic diaries which are kept up to date in 15 minute increments. This allows people to know each others’ availability, and helps manage the workload.
When setting up a flexible work program with a client, Chris might look for people with a lot of face-to-face interaction. That ensures that everyone knows each other to some extent. The team then works through planning scenarios to train on what to do in different working situations.
Even if the company doesn’t work remotely, it’s good to have remote processes in place in case there’s a strike, or a transportation or weather problem. The company will be stronger for it. Some insurance companies even give reduced premiums for having these contingency plans and business continuity programs in place.
Key personality traits include … being highly self-motivated, having good project management skills and excellent time management skills. Good communication is key. Another issue is international culture and diversity. It’s important to evolve work practices to incorporate different needs. Working remotely requires more frequent communications at and between all levels of the organisation. And never forget the power of having face-to-face meetings when possible. It’s also important to be outward looking in order not to feel isolated or cut off.
On the other side of that, there are staff who work without taking any time off in which case there’s the risk of burn out.
There are additional unknowns that come up, for example, one employee who was ideally suited to work at home had a wife who was absolutely against him bringing any work home. In that case, an alternate workspace was set up for him to work in using a local third-party managed office.
Individual motivation is not the only aspect. Companies can also work to keep employee motivation high. People are more willing to be loyal when the company has invested in them too. People at Charterhouse typically work on projects in about 12 different teams during a year, so there are a lot of opportunities for change, reviews and feedback. Staff are encouraged to seek out mentors or life coaches. Teams generally set their own work patterns, which switches the psychology of work from “the boss is making me do this” to “I get to decide how, when and where this task needs to get done”.