CHRIS RIDGEWELL is co-founder and director of Wisework, a specialist U.K.-based management consultancy company that helps organizations plan, implement, and manage their Agile/smart-working programs. This can include working from home, using office space more efficiently, mobile working, and converting old farm buildings into managed offices or coworking spaces. He’s also the principal and owner at Charterhouse Consultants group, which implements change management programs in large companies and organizations around the world. He was also a founder member of the U.K. Telework Association.
His tips for working remotely:
- Even if you don’t have a company where people are working remotely, it’s good to have the processes in place in case something happens. You’ll just be stronger for it as a company.
- Agree on the tools you are going to use and be disciplined about using them.
- Make better use of your legacy buildings. If you can’t sell them, convert them.
- Take a look at wearable technologies for some fun productivity tools.
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 ’90s the UK Telework Association was set up 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 a 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 leaped 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 into 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 that 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”.
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Lisette: Great we’re live. Welcome, everybody to this hangout on air. My name is Lisette Sutherland and today I’m very excited to be interviewing Chris Ridgewell, the co-founder, and director of Wisework, a company that’s based in the UK and helps organizations implement flexible work, amongst a myriad of other things. It’s not often that I meet someone that’s as enthusiastic about remote working as I am but Chris, today I have surely met my match. Welcome. I’m really excited to finally have an in-depth conversation with you.
Chris: Thank you very much, Lisette. I’m glad to take part.
Lisette: For anybody that’s watching actually I wanted to say if you have questions now or in the future, feel free to tweet them to #remoteinterview and we’ll go ahead and get those answered. If somebody sees this in the future, that will still be valid then. Chris why don’t we start with an overview about who you are and what you do, give us a glimpse into what your role looks like.
Chris: Okay. I have, for a guest, we call here a portfolio of work. I’m self-employed. I have 4 main business streams, 1 is based in Luxemburg for a holding company who has farms and all sorts of things but on some of those farms, we’ve actually converted very old farm buildings into managed offices. Ridgewell in Essex, which is a sort of family home. We have a 15th century stone barn with about 50 workstations in it. Students from Cambridge University live in the village, which is all flats, cottages, and things, and go to work there rather than commute into Cambridge. It’s an obviously remote work in there. I have my own consultancy practice with Charterhouse Consultancy Group, which I had bought about 10 or 15 years ago and now just have about 9,500 based in 18 countries. We do quite extensive change management programs for large corporations and public sector like police forces and so on. Again we live in the cloud basically. The first thing I did when I bought it was get rid of all the offices everywhere and that people were working on the client’s side, so things like Ridgewell’s business center, occasionally at home. They’re not very often. For example this morning on my little Nokia Smartphone I had a video conference with my country manager from the Pacific Rim who was actually in Tokyo waiting for a train, so using this technology all the time just to keep in touch. The main other business is Wisework Ltd. which is a small UK-based flexible working consultancy. I work predominantly with local government, local authorities in the UK and larger employers to help them plan, implement and sometimes manage their agile working, smart working programs, which could be home working, could be better use of office space, mobile working, that sort of thing. And then finally I’m chairman of the UK Telework Association and that grew out of a European Commission Program called ACO which was launched in 1986 and the association actually launched in 1991 and that’s all about promoting the benefits of what was then called Telework. We’ve now seen it changed to flexible working, agile working, smart working in current sort of parlance and it’s a membership organization. It’s a membership organization. It’s one of a number that was setup around about that time across Europe and there were 2 in the Netherlands. I think one is still running as a consultancy practice there. Basically, that’s it, been around quite a while. I think I did my first flexible working client project back in 1984, for Bell Canada, for about 2000 home-based residential commercial engineers who would go out to fix phones in people’s homes. It’s not a new thing at all. It’s been around for a long time but I’m more about the formation of the business benefits and making it simple for people to implement.
Lisette: I have 2 questions that quickly come to mind actually after hearing the description and one is has the reasons for Telework changed over the years? Are there different things coming up now than back in 1984? That’s the first question and then I’ll get to the second one.
Chris: Yeah I think when the association was set up, it was there specifically to help self-employed people, sole traders and the owners of what was then called Tele Cottages, Telework centers, to actually set their businesses up and network together. In parallel with that handy management college, we set up a thing called The Future Work Forum, which did the same sort of thing for corporate, so it covers both ends of the spectrum. Then people were just experimenting with it, trying to formalize their top practices if they have employees in work, bearing in mind that they have a legal responsibility for their safety, their insurance wherever and whenever they work. It’s very much bolt in new work practices on to existing management structures and usually didn’t work or wasn’t sustainable. Now however it’s much more business imperative. There has to be a business reason to do it, so it could be to make better use of your real estate. With one council that we worked for, they were reduced from 68 buildings down to just 3 campus sites and moving about 19,000 around in that framework and that was clearly a property-driven business drive to save property costs. In local authorities, recent drivers have been about productivity gains. We have the Gershon Efficiency Review saying the council has to tighten up their budget to increase their productivity and efficiency and we’ve worked with a lot of them to help that through introductory working practices. But now I think it’s much more business imperative. We have got things like generation Y, the Millennials, now coming into the workforce. It’d be interesting to see what happens when they become the leaders of business, what are their takes about flexible working, agile working, working where and when they like rather than working to a fixed place and being paid for the number of hours they work. I think that will cause change as well.
Lisette: Yeah I wonder also too, I’ve heard it before that really the age difference of the new culture that comes in with the different generation is often the driving force on various movements and I spoke to somebody that worked for the Dutch traffic and he said that with their drunk driving campaigns they saw an immediate switch with the following generation, when they were trying to make it very taboo for drunk driving. With the following generation that was no problem at all.
Chris: I think it will cause some significant changes. The many organizations aren’t ready to cope with that. Their structures are still based on a fixed time, fixed place, almost the industrial revolution type of model, where they kind of ignored the information revolution that happens.
Lisette: That actually draws me to the next question, which is Teleworking has clearly been around for a long time, I mean before 1984 but why is it still considered the new way of working or a new way to do work. Why is it not catching on, do you think?
Chris: I think there are 2 issues. I think it is catching on but people don’t think about it. Unless you’re a finance officer, flexibility means one thing. To a property manager, it means something totally different. If you’re an HR recruitment, something totally different. There’s something around the definitions of all this stuff, and people began sending me definitions back in the 80s of this stuff, noting upwards of whatever 6500 different definitions of telework, telecommuting, occasional independent working and so on. There’s a language barrier there and I think people still come out of management schools even expecting to fit into a pyramid structure and then work their way up the ladder. That doesn’t happen anymore. In charterhouse, we have just 3 layers between me and the clients and that’s it. We don’t have a middle tier or management at all. We have country leaders and team leaders and we are very much a team-based business that changes day by day but many organizations have huge departments, which often don’t talk to each other. You may have middle activities of flexible working going on that managers approve but they may be using their own technology, there’ll be security risks in trying to formalize that but it’s cultural, especially in the UK, I think more even in the continent of Europe, there’s a trust element there. How can I trust you if I can’t see you working? It’s a much more of presentism here. See it a bit in America as one of the cause but I think it’s quite prominent here. That needs to change and it’s only when the older managers, the old gray biz like myself move out of the workforce that you’ll see these changes happening.
Lisette: Yeah we do, I mean I’m heavily involved, as you probably know, with the management 3.0 movement. I hear a lot about that. I’m no expert by any means but I’m around these conversations quite often and I hear people talking about the changes in management that do need to happen and the hierarchy, we see now also with Zappos, the hierarchical structures that people are experimenting with and going to flat organizations or liquid organizations. I suppose then the remote working is tied in with that somehow. Somehow it’s all sort of in the same genre of change that needs to happen in organizations.
Chris: I think there’s an issue too about the technology. Many organizations have fixed technology and things like bring your own device in coming in, and they can’t manage that. There were serious concerns about security issues, about protecting data and all the legal ramifications of that as well, which they haven’t really got equips with yet and the technology is left ahead of where they are, but many people still with old voice over IP. Networks aren’t capable anymore of handling the volume. In the advent of cloud computing, I think if you look at smaller businesses they’re leaping on to it. On Wisework we’re totally in the cloud as well. We’re using sites like Dropbox and all this drive and so on, share calendars and so on but many organizations aren’t geared up to be able to work in that way.
Lisette: And I suppose that the size of an organization would also really matter in that sense and also security really matters. Not every organization is able to use Dropbox, given the security issues.
Chris: No, they ban it.
Lisette: There’s very few programs I think that would be able to satisfy those needs. I suppose that is the downside. What are some of the common challenges that you see throughout the year? There must be a huge list but I know if there’s anything that just jumps out at you as across the board challenges.
Chris: I was running a client working, training workshop this morning, remotely interesting is to prove that it actually works. I’m at home at the moment, in my little office in the home and I was working with a client up in North Hampton, actually running their training program remotely using video conferencing and so on and shifting documents around, but often there are issues like “I only pay you to be able to fix time.” The contracts of terms and conditions of employment, for example, hold things back and I think a lot of management leaders’ view flexible working as a cost, not a business benefit.
Lisette: Oh interesting. Considering how much money it saves, so that’s a very interesting perspective.
Chris: It’s only when they begin to see the business benefits starting to come through, hitting targets earlier, increased productivity, more client satisfaction and surveys, that sort of thing, maybe even better start retention, which is a key driver here at the moment, keeping the key skills and expertise you’ve got, things like that. It’s only when they start seeing that coming through, I think maybe I’ll change a bit. It is a benefit. Yes, there is a cost to set it up in all sorts of areas but long term, if they take the longer term view, they’ll see the benefit of it.
Lisette: I can imagine that it would take some time to take the culture of an organization.
Chris: It does, very much so. Many people step into this sort of type of working without realizing they are generating a culture change in the organization and that catches them out sometimes.
Lisette: Right. So then the challenges are sort of the speed, and actually, one thing that comes up is when you’re doing your remote coaching, what would be different about doing it remotely for you than doing it in person? Clearly, there’s an engagement issue. When you’re in person, people are sort of they have to be there, they have to listen. When you’re online sometimes you don’t know if they’re checking their email or how engaged they are. How do you deal with that?
Chris: Just now I’ve answered an urgent email while we’re talking.
Lisette: Wow! You’re good.
Chris: The way we set it up with a client was there’s a lot of face to face interaction when you start off, so I get to know you flesh to flesh and that sort of thing. Most of the people around that room, there are over 54 people in the room at the far end, have met me at some stage and they’ve taken part in various conversations with me individually. I may have even coached or mentored some of them, the supervisors there to help them make the changes. At least we know each other to some extent. There’s a lot more preparation to do to make sure they’ve got all the documentation they need at their end, things like workbook and that sort of thing, but sometimes you might just shut those in the bag, take it off on the train and hand them out on the day, so they’ve done some preparatory work before the workshop and we’re actually working through some scenario planning today, to see what happens if someone pulls secret work in the office, who actually manages a team of remote workers, what’s the backup plan on those sorts of things, because what they’re doing is implementing agile working as part of this disaster recovery plan, so if their building falls down or there’s a train strike, these people know where to work and how to work, that sort of thing.
Lisette: Oh wow, right in the course.
Chris: Yeah, so we’ll test it. We’ll probably give them about 2 hours notice that we’re going to test it, which might even be a weekend because they’re a 24/7 service provider. We’ll see if it works or not.
Lisette: I can imagine actually that’s a huge benefit of remote working is when there’s a strike, when there’s a transportation problem when there’s a weather problem that people are prepared then to work from home.
Chris: That’s right. I used to work for Cohen Morrison, in the early 90s, everywhere there’s small plastic card, a credit card size card and that had the instructions on what to do if disaster happened, where to report to, when they had to report, if they needed equipment where to get it and how to log in, that sort of thing. We would test that 3 times a year at random and it worked when we had a couple of bombs in London, part of the Mercury Communications Network blew up. Luckily we had a backup in place but some people couldn’t get to their offices and they knew where to go instead. It does work and local authorities have a legal obligation to have these sorts of things in place here. We’re hoping to meet that compliance requirement.
Lisette: That is very forward thinking. I’m thinking back to an interview I did with somebody named Jeremy Stanton and he said even if you don’t have a company where people are working remotely, it’s good to have the processes in place in case something happens because you’ll just be stronger for it as a company.
Chris: Yeah absolutely. Some insurance companies now actually like it because they may give you reduced premiums for example, because they know you’ve got it in place, especially there’s that puppet liability and that sort of thing. It can’t be a cost benefit as long as you do it.
Lisette: Let’s talk then quickly, I just got a question actually from somebody who’s watching, thank you. Patrick, this is great, but I would like to also talk now about system. He asks “aren’t there systems to control what employees are doing through video or output?” which I think hits into the concept of work isn’t some place you go but it’s something to do. What do we put in place to know what people are doing?
Chris: You might take a view that you don’t need to because you’re trusting they’re going to meet their objectives. It doesn’t matter if they’re playing golf on a Friday afternoon as long as they meet their objective and the deadlines. Within charterhouse that’s basically how we work. People know what targets they got to achieve. We hopefully give them all the tools and support they need to do it and I don’t mind, bringing some sort of global ring if you like and the work tends to follow us around the world. We don’t really mind. When they actually do it, they come together with the team meetings, obviously, work with clients, house their client likes. That could be one view but if you do need to measure productivity for any reason, maybe it’s a contractual requirement, there is software available on companies like Asure Software, an American-based company who has various productivity measurement tools based in software. They can enable you to schedule meetings, all that sort of thing, manage diaries. There are software tools, plenty of them around and they’re scalable. If you’ve got a small team, you might be able to scale it to a small team or a whole department.
Lisette: So where is then, the question becomes knowing exactly what you need in terms of what you’d like to tract and what you have and basically going out and finding the tool, because you’re right there’s hundreds of tools from Basecamp to Zoho to Asure.
Chris: In the UK, Asure I mentioned they seem to be growing quite a lot. They bought a company called People Cube, it’s all about scheduling and booking, and they grafted their productivity tools on top of it. You can bind modular subsets of it. We use electronic diaries quite a lot. It’s actually a sacrilege, a sort of big sin if you don’t keep your diary up to date in 15 minutes chunks within Charterhouse because we need to know if you’re available or not available and that sort of thing. It’s also partly to know where they are. If they do have an accident and they’re on the road, we can get to them, tell people to get to that sort of thing. At least we know roughly what they’re up to. It’s not too much Big Brother-ish. It’s much more about just managing the workload and seeing if we can actually form a loose team together today to meet a small project or a longer term one.
Lisette: It sounds also like what you’re doing is something called, which I’m a big fan off, I think I talk about it in every interview, it’s called working out loud, where it’s not actually Big Brother monitoring. It’s more people being very transparent and open about exactly what they’re working on at the time.
Chris: That’s right. I have 3 PI’s who live somewhere on the internet, manage all my diaries and things. They know at the moment many communications coming in, go to certain areas and that sort of service that you can actually deliver to clients so that they’ll know you’re available or not available. Then we make a big thing with our clients saying “actually Tom isn’t here today because he’s got a family day-off.” They’ll come over tomorrow from 9:00. Clients go “oh okay” and it makes them think about what’s actually happening.
Lisette: Right. For instance, if you’re really struggling on something, you put on your status of however you work out loud, like “I’m really struggling with this…” and someone says “oh by the way I have this key piece of information that might be able to help.”
Chris: Yeah I do get exception reports sometimes about members and staff who have been working flat out in 1 case for 9 days on a project without taking any time off and then the time leaders are quite worried about burn out because they’ll have to put someone else in to replace him. We just have a gentle coaching session to say actually slow down a bit or spread the work, delegate some of the work. Stress in the early days in some businesses, it was actually quite stressful. With big change programming, got rid of all our offices and all this was coming at people at once, so I was managing that as well.
Lisette: Do you do that then in a more slow, bite-sized basis now when you’re doing your change management operation?
Chris: Yeah everyone, if they want it, can have a mentor or even a sort of life coach or whatever. We’ll pay for that as sort of independent manufacturing. I’ve actually got 2 mentors, one of whom is actually 15 years old, because I want to see what his expectation of work is and what he will be having coming in. He just sat down with me on Saturday and just set off. We talk about his school work and stuff like that when he’s doing business studies and everything else. I say “okay, we know what your ambition is. You want to be an apprentice doing business studies, but what are you actually expecting from your employer?” We had a really good head to head conversation about it, almost demand flexible hours and the rest of it. There was an iPad that was just sitting there, obviously whatever the generation is at that time, but it works.
Lisette: Right. It sounds like it’s setting expectations on both sides really, very clearly deliberate.
Chris: Yeah very much so. It hinges on reward and motivation issues as well. In Charterhouse Group, people tend to work in about 12 teams during a year, so they have 6 months of reviews about that and that in turn sort of generates this own personal development plan for 3 years and we change it every so often. One of my senior team leaders actually wants to move more into a sales role so we’ve agreed with her that her training will push her in that direction. Hopefully, she’ll stay.
Lisette: I think people are much more willing to be loyal when the company has invested in them in that way, saying “we understand, we’ll help you on this path” and people will be much more loyal.
Chris: Yeah, very much so.
Lisette: In speaking with that actually, so we covered about technology and before we got on the Hangout I had said that technology isn’t an excuse anymore. There’s plenty of technologies that people like yourself can help companies find and implement into some of the things that would work for them. Let’s then talk about personality. I’m wondering, in what you’ve seen are there certain personalities where remote working it’s not just going to work?
Chris: I think the first example wasn’t so much about the individual himself as the partner. In [24:06] we have something called the agile office, right around the whole world, with all our offices around the world, and my deputy at that time was ideally suited past all the psychometric profiles which are set in. He was ideally suited to work at home for at least 1 day a week but the minute he took any piece of paper home with a mercury logo on it, his wife said “I’m not having that in the house, this is my domain” sort of thing, so we had to come up with an alternate workspace.
Chris: In terms of personality traits, obviously you’ve got to be quite highly self-motivated and if you go all psychometric profiling that’s been done, heading all these other people, motivation comes quite high, good project management skills, pretty much excellent time management skills as well. Those are quite key. Good communication, because if you are remote you tend to need to communicate more often, although we still insist on face to face meetings and so on. [25:11] although we had electronic expenses and that, as supposed to take people’s expenses every month electronically and proofed them and push them up to finance, I insist that people actually brought their expenses on a piece of paper to me at the monthly team meetings and I would weigh it in my hand, eyeball them. At least they have to come to the face to face meetings and some team members meet in between in hotel rooms and all the sort of thing. A little bit of outward-looking sort of self-motivation helps because otherwise you could become isolated and feel cut off, bear in mind that some people their jobs actually can’t be done remotely. They have to be at a certain place, and you need to make sure they’re integrated into that way of working. By and large, after a couple of months, teams generally we find set their own work patterns and they may have a buddy system. In one of the local authorities, we worked with have actually tried to match up someone who’s not outward looking with someone who is, within the team, to see if that helps and will pull them through, a bit of internal coaching.
Lisette: Interesting. That made sense. I’ve heard that before, actually for Spotify, they said that they allowed their small teams, they get to set their own schedules, whether they work nights or whether they work whenever, they do it themselves.
Chris: If the job entails it, it’s actually very productive and you see the efficiency figures increasing. Some jobs, I mean I did some work with a team of educational psychologist working for a local authority who work only in schools so obviously they’ve got to work during the school hours when the children are there that they’re supporting, but then they would have support meetings, training meetings and those tended to be run on quite varying times of the day in a week to see their work happens. Obviously, they have things like some holidays freer so they could do a rather personal development at that time and so on.
Lisette: Right, then I can imagine that letting the employees do this themselves, they will get the work done, they will make sure it happens and there’s a difference than if the boss says “I need you to work tomorrow night.” Yeah, a big difference.
Chris: That’s right, yeah.
Lisette: They might do the same things but psychology the difference is I got to decide rather than the boss made me do it.
Chris: Yeah that’s right and there are problems in some global businesses to do with more culture issues, international culture issues, and diversity issues. Again you have to sort of test that and evolve it to make it work. Some people we have working in Hong Kong at the moment. They work in very specific hours, quite long hours but they wouldn’t work on a Friday for example because that’s traditionally been their family get together day and you’re trying to build that in. If you’ve got deadlines to meet, it can be quite difficult and occasionally you just have to put your foot down and say “actually no, you’ve got to get this piece done by 3:00” or whatever it might be.
Lisette: So then I want to make sure that I did cover all of the main benefits or the challenges or maybe some of your favorite stories of organizational change or things that you’ve run into.
Chris: Alright. Gosh, where to begin?
Lisette: Yeah I know you have many, but maybe just some favorites that pop out.
Chris: I think the big gains we see if you think about the business itself, you definitely over a long term see significant increases in productivity, efficiency in the terms the work is actually done. Teams tend to bond together some more strongly and be much more self-supporting, which always helps. If they’re customer facing, providing services to customers, generally if they do satisfaction surveys, over time the customer seems to, whether satisfied with the service they get, and that might be because people are more available to them or more easily get at, they can be approached more easily. Working in the local area for example or even in the client side, businesses I think also, certainly if you look at the feedback we get from all the projects we work on in areas like staff retention, key skills, key people, because suddenly through all of these they’re getting these benefits, able to shift their work patterns a bit or maybe start late because they’re taking children to school or picking them up or whatever it might be, maybe having done some training in the technology they’re going to be given. That gives them a bit of a boost, the fact the company has actually taken a bit of interest in them for example. There’s that as well and that, in turn, helps reduce your recruitment cost because you don’t need to replace people so much and your efficiency gains, you don’t have to then wait 6 months for people to become integrated into the organization.
Lisette: Right, and it’s a very costly process both monetarily and time-wise. I can imagine spending for those.
Chris: Very much so. In parallel with that is to get things like reduced sickness rates. If you think about 2 years ago, the UK lost about 10.4 million working hours of time because people are sick due to stress and related illnesses. That is a significant boost. But from the individual’s viewpoint, they just have better control of their time and that seems time and time again to be the benefit they tend to pick up the most. Obviously, they can suggest, if they are allowed to suggest what better ways of doing a job and then do it and prove it works. They get the reward for that as well. The key thing is actually getting what we call work-life balance. You’re getting that properly sorted out. Some people who were at home work balance or whatever but does seem to be a good bit of evidence appearing now that that is actually happening in firms that do implement it.
Lisette: What do you see is the main driver? I see of course lots of reasons for employees to work from home, and for the business perspective, I would imagine for businesses remote workers would truly have the benefit of you can get exactly the right person with exactly the right skill. That might not be available locally in your town.
Chris: That’s right.
Lisette: Why else would a business move in this direction? Employee happiness really but…
Chris: I think a key driver, certainly in the UK, if it’s not trying to get better productivity, efficiency, staff retention and so on, is something around this property area, either making better use of your legacy buildings, so we’ve had a local authority council that had about 50 redundant schools in mainly rural communities that pay them, keep them secure. They’ve become work hubs, local business startup centers and so on, behind a local vicar goes and have rights and ceremonies, one of these centers and takes it off. Startup businesses are using them and visiting people like union reps in the area for the day have a base to work out for example. That’s what we do with our tele-barns on the farms that I have. We actually tele-barns now, this is what people call them. You see a rise as well in the work hub movement here as well, co-working sites and that sort of parallels that as well.
Lisette: Yeah I can imagine like for the guy whose wife doesn’t want him working at home.
Chris: Exactly. Making better use of your legacy buildings is a key one. Maybe more flexible use of workspace if you can’t get rid of your building, maybe having the ground floors touchdown sites of people in the building for the day have a base to work from. They go to their meeting, they go to their training program, whatever it is and come back there, do a bit of email or just talk to people, whatever it might be and then obviously we see as well, we started actually digital equipment companies in the 1980s that became part of Hewlett-Packard and the people from the 80s program, they built team areas so if they had a team of 30, they might have 20 desks and there’s desk sharing because not everyone’s there at the same time and the team secretary, PA, actually manage that workspace so she knew if it was in the right place and we’re seeing a lot of that now. In fact, we’ve worked with an oil company up in Aberdeen where they put team space in and the big one wasn’t actually about the change and losing my desk. It was about what color tarp they will put around the wall for their particular team because you have highlanders and lowlanders working together in the same team. I stood back from that one. That team space works quite well because they know they’ve got a base, they haven’t got to fight for space throughout the building. They’re separated. They can actually come to run a space that has minimal storage for documentation, a lot of it is electronic these days but the use of workspace is a big winner. The way I look at it, if I go into a client is looking at the floor and I see a wastepaper basket on the floor, which might occupy a square foot on the floor, and I try and work out how many people could actually share that wastepaper basket. It’s quite a very crude measurement but 2-1, 3-1 is quite a good ratio to aim for and quite achievable. I think property at the moment is a key driver apart from the obvious government drive for efficiency and productivity within the public sector.
Lisette: It’s interesting that you say a government drive for productivity and efficiency, which doesn’t really get stated in the same sentence.
Chris: Oh right. If we go back a few years, we had the Gershon Efficiency Review which generated a government directive to all public sector organizations, police, local authorities, to actually improve their productivity, increase efficiency. A lot did it through job cuts but then suddenly realized that that wasn’t what was being measured. It was much more about how you deliver services and that sort of thing, which then generates the actual financial cost cuts and so on and that is still going on. My local authority here, the council have just trying to release 3 buildings, which they don’t need now but still have to keep on their books. It’s all little areas but our involvement was to write a set of guidelines called Project Nomad, to really set the guidelines for using local authorities about how they implement this necessarily in the business case first, then it looks at the strategy, the policies you need, looks at how you finance it, the sort of technology that will be enabling or disenabling, all those sorts of things. Now it dates back about 5 years, at least. Those government drives, unfortunately, we don’t have a sort of White House telecommuting champion as they do in America. I think if we have had here things would change quite radically, small bonfires burning, just trying to push that through a little bit.
Lisette: Why do you think…or maybe what do you see, why are businesses resisting? What are some of the reasons that you hear? We’ve talked now about so many benefits, but why do people resist?
Chris: I think still, certainly in the UK, lots of managers in traditional organizations see it as a cost. Yes, we’re doing it to appease the employees because they demand it but that’s a cost to us and it’s breaking the mold a little bit. I think the key issue still is trust. We banged on about it back in the 1980s. If I can’t see you at your desk, you’re not working. It’s still a key issue. If we look at the ground of open-plan offices, 9 times out of 10 half the desk are empty and there’s Joe at his terminal, playing some computer game and someone else updating their CV for a job interview, and that doesn’t work. But for the people who work at home, lots of studies now, the Schrider Study, for example, all suggest that they are far more efficient, more productive and more engaged with the organization. I think that’s a key thing that’s happening now, people realizing that maybe half their workforce just aren’t engaged in the organization. They say it’s a short term post and we move on and don’t really support the mission statement of the organization and that is becoming a driver that’s appeared within the last 12-15 months. It still goes back to trust. If I can’t see you, I can’t manage you.
Lisette: Right, it was a whole different form of management.
Chris: Yeah. They’ve been coached, trained, from birth almost to expect to rise in the organization, have their pyramid visible all around them and it’s a status symbol and there are very few organizations where the status symbol is actually not in the office all the time or not here; it certainly needs to change.
Lisette: Right, and that’s a huge cultural shift I think.
Chris: Yeah. It used to be that technology was a bit of a barrier and still is in some organizations where I have my desktop, you have your laptop, my job actually needs a laptop but I can’t get it. Some organizations we’ve put on their internet, a sort of swapping agency in the middle. If you’ve got a redundant desktop, you can swap it with someone that needs that and you get their laptop in exchange and all the financial into department billing takes place. That’s still a problem. People with older phones, non-3G, can’t take the benefit of some of these newer remote working services for example. A lot of people still on Windows 95, 97, are not being able to benefit from things in the cloud and that sort of thing.
Lisette: Where we say technology isn’t an issue anymore. While the solutions exist but implementing them is clearly still an issue.
Chris: Departmental budgeting systems might not let you reclaim your phone cost if you’re working at home for example. Barriers like that pop up from time to time.
Lisette: Right. It’s really good. I actually had not thought of this. That’s a really interesting point. We’re nearing the end of the time frame but I don’t want to close up the interview without talking about wearable technology, which I’m personally oblivious. I’ve got to know more and your profile says that you’re a wearable technology enthusiast. Please tell me more about it.
Chris: We do quite a bit of work with the military and that’s where it’s driven from. I do lecturing at [40:51] University for example in ergonomics, the design of technology and usability. You’ve got things like Google Glass beginning to make an impact, Samsung with some of their wearable technology. A few years ago BT had an OOYA, the Office On Your Arm, and that was a great chunky device which you strap to your forearm and you can do video conferencing and phone calls from it. Now it’s getting smaller, so we’re actually working with some Japanese companies on a new version of a communication device which actually generates 3-5 or 6cm tall hologram on the person you’re actually speaking to at the end.
Lisette: Wow cool!
Chris: What that would do to working practices, obviously we don’t know yet but that makes it much more intimate, much more personal communication. We have people like Air France experimenting with a patch pocket, which actually has a computer chip built into the patch pocket and you stick it on with Velcro, so if your cabin crew down one end of a 747 run out of gin and tonic, you can order up on your patch pocket and it whizzes down to you. It’s a mobile phone integrated but you can scrunch it up, tuck it in the washing machine and it still works and there’s a new version of that that we’ve now seen in Japan, which is slightly larger, but still a patch pocket but you stick it on maybe a floral dress and over a minute it actually changes its color to try and match the floral pattern behind it.
Chris: But in terms of why do I have to carry a mobile phone with buttons on it, I can remember doing a school project designing a phone that had no buttons on it, because you simply speak into a phone, why do you have button? All those sorts of things. If you can wear something and speak at it, then that just makes it more efficient. If you have €250 million, you can go to one of these Couture houses in Paris and buy an earring set with a necklace, a choker, and one earring is the speaker device, the other earring is the hearing device and the actual mobile phone is built into the necklace in the choker, diamonds and whatever; as a day to day object. If it’s integrated into clothing, for example, you see it in sports, soccer players now have RF ID tags sewn into their shirts, front and back, and sports performance analyst like my son, for example, track them doing a match and a training session, measure all the parameters like heartbeat, acceleration rate and so on, and that generates their next stage training program.
Lisette: Oh wow.
Chris: If you move that into an office environment, does it make you more efficient to keyboarding or things like that, going back to this measurement of productivity.
Lisette: I have my Fitbit here for it because I do double time and to me it reminds me, I need to get up and step away from the computer and go for a walk.
Chris: That’s right. It’s all about location as well. If it’s there, you will have GPS satellite tracking in it. If you say had a heart attack, you could be located and it would probably be taking measurements of the ailment you’ve got, so when medics get there they’re ready to service you.
Lisette: Right, it speeds things up. I can imagine.
Chris: Yeah, there’s all sorts of applications that could fall out of it.
Lisette: How does one get involved with wearable technologies?
Chris: Back in the 80s, I was loaned to Luxemburg by Cable and Wireless, I love to be a university lecturer up there. I’m still involved up there but it’s much more within the whole science of ergonomics and the design and use and application of technology and help people interact with it. We’ve been involved in developing handsets for use by people who are 100% hearing impairment and that sort of thing. It has sort of grown from that really but I still got this [45:02] about the fact that the phone has buttons and you have to carry it and if you put it down or lose it, you’re stuck. If it’s on you, you can’t lose it.
Lisette: Right. I can imagine there’s been a lot of improvements for the last few years but there’s still a long way to go.
Lisette: If people want to learn more about the services that you offer or they want to become involved with the UK Telework association, how would they find you? What’s the best way to get in touch with you?
Chris: On Telework Association it’s mainly the website, which is www.telework.org.uk. We do joint working with you anywhere, working program as well, which is a UK government-driven initiative. I think that’s got about a million members to it now. That’s actually quite a big movement. If they want to contact me personally, then firstname.lastname@example.org is the best email and I put that up on my phone or wherever I am. It sort of follows me around everywhere, or I’m on LinkedIn as well if they want to join up with me. But if you had a business card with all the communication addresses on it, you’d have about 4 pages of it.
Lisette: You’ll get a scroll, right?
Chris: Yeah there’s Facebook and all sorts of things.
Lisette: Yes, technology enthusiasts tend to have. You tend to try everything at least once.
Chris: Yeah very much though.
Lisette: What does this button do?
Lisette: Thank you very much for your time today. I feel like I could go on and on and on. Maybe what I’ll do is send some follow up questions.
Chris: Yeah please do.
Lisette: I really appreciate your time today. I’m going to go ahead and end the broadcast but don’t hang up. I’ll just want to do a quick…
Chris: Okay, thanks, my pleasure. Thank you. Bye.