Covid-19 taught businesses that one workplace doesn’t fit all employees. Ben Fahy learned about what flexibility really means in a modern office.
Vaughan Fergusson, the founder and director of retail software company Vend, lifts up his laptop and gives me a glimpse of Vend HQ a few days after the second lockdown was eased in Auckland.
“It’s tumbleweeds in here,” he says.
In the Before Times, around 150 people were beavering away in this office every day. But for Vend, along with an increasing number of businesses forced to head for home in recent months, there’s been a realisation that work is not just a place you go, it’s a thing you do.
Previously, Fergusson says the company had a reasonably flexible but fairly organic policy on working from home. If someone asked they’d generally be able to, but the expectation was that everyone would work together in the office most of the time. But after experiencing the other extreme during lockdown, he says the exec team decided to get everyone together, question everything, figure out what did and didn’t work and settle on its long-term flexible working principles.
One of the big outtakes of this forced experiment – and something Fergusson talks about as if it was a major blind spot – was that everyone had a different preferred style of working. Introverts loved working from home, extroverts loved working from the office and the ambiverts liked a bit of both.
“Our office is completely open plan so we had basically been expecting everyone to be the same and work the same way. A lot of people realised that they liked working a certain way. They had just never had the opportunity to work that way before.”
Businesses are designed to be efficient. Everyone working the same hours in the same office is a blunt but understandable corporate instrument, and it’s become the default because having different rules for different people is so much harder to manage. But companies manage some very complicated things, Fergusson says, so if they truly believe that people are their most valuable asset, then they will be able to figure out a way to do it.
“There isn’t a simple blueprint we can apply because when you throw in all the variables of people’s lives, whether it’s kids, flatmates, commutes, and all their different working styles, you just need to adapt and have a flexible policy so people can work the way they feel most productive and safe.”
Vend christened its policy the “omniwork style”.
“In retail, there’s a thing called omnichannel and our first principle, just like retail, is that we value interpersonal connections. That’s how you build culture – in person – so where possible, we’re going to do that. Even though we’ve said we’ll have a flexible working style, there will be two days a week we need to be together. Every Thursday is company day and we all come into the office and each team decides on another day that suits them. There was some debate about whether mandating specific company days was too inflexible, but six months ago everyone was in the office every day.”
Eating their own dog food
It was inevitable, really. For many, “you’re on mute” has become the breakout phrase of 2020 and Jodie King, Vodafone’s freshly installed chief people officer, couldn’t see or hear me at the start of our video meeting where we were meant to be discussing the future of work.
“How ironic!” she typed in the chatbox before we ended the meeting and started another successful one. Fortunately, King, who spent around seven years at Air New Zealand before resigning in January, has become very well-accustomed to the awkwardness of meeting new people on a screen.
“I transitioned to Vodafone during the first lockdown,” she says. “All of my induction was facilitated online, I did my pepeha, my mihi to the entire organisation online. I met all the exec team and my own team online. I was really impressed at how smoothly it ran.”
Vodafone has always pushed a “mixed modality of working” and while they weren’t preparing for a societal meltdown like Covid-19, the flexibility that had been built into the business over many years and the digital tools it had developed meant it was able to very quickly get its staff working from home and could continue to function during lockdown.
“We did that a lot earlier than other organisations and that put us in good stead when it ramped up. Our employees felt like we cared and weren’t putting them in any danger because we connected with our sister companies overseas, and we moved fast with a strong people-first principle.”
Just as Amazon trialled its cloud server system on its own business before rolling it out to customers, Vodafone also decided to “eat its own dog food” and, after proving that its suite of road-tested products and processes was able to keep its staff productive and healthy – and keep the business humming – it’s now offering that package to other companies as part of its modern workplace strategy.
All well and good
In his book Messy, economist Tim Harford shares examples of disorder creating the momentum needed for necessary change. Many businesses were shocked into action when Covid hit and were forced to quickly roll out tech solutions (and sometimes roll out desks and comfortable chairs) to enable their teams to keep working. But just as the productivity gains of electricity took decades to kick in because factory owners and managers didn’t know how to get the best out of the technology, there’s still a lot to learn when it comes to flexible working.
At the office, King says good managers are likely to notice signals that all is not well or that someone’s burnt out, but a more proactive approach is required when you can’t pop by their desk for a chat. To deal with that, Vodafone created an app called Vlife, which asks employees questions about where they will be that day and how they’re feeling.
“Every morning we have to check-in, say whether we’re coming into the office, whether we’re healthy and happy, and whether our whānau is healthy and happy. And if not, we have the ability to do something about it, so our people know the questions are coming from a good place.”
King says compliance with the questions is close to 100% and, pleasingly, despite the changes to working situations and the stress of a raging global pandemic, she says the range of efforts to manage wellbeing remotely has avoided a spike in terms of the numbers of employees accessing its assistance programme.
With the separation between home and work erased, boundary setting and expectation management are also crucial, she says, and that often comes from the top.
“Jason [Paris, Vodafone’s chief executive] would say to the team ‘I’m taking an hour out now to take my kids for a bike ride’ and then post a photo of it”, which showed people that it was okay to do the same. The exec team also did live streams and tried to normalise their own personal struggles.
King says she had a lot of feedback about how draining it was to be in back-to-back video meetings, so Vodafone instituted a “no meeting lunch hour” policy to encourage staff to take rest breaks and asked managers to check in with their teams by text or phone to make sure everything was okay.
“When people were struggling, particularly when they had young kids, it was just about cutting them a bit of slack, and showing that you knew it was hard and allowing them to reconnect later.”
Having spent her career in HR, it’s perhaps not surprising that King loved getting a peek into other people’s lives (turns out she has the exact same piece of Australian Aboriginal art as the CFO and the CIO, which she finds very strange). But for Fergusson, he says he was struck by how working from home suited some but not others. He was lucky enough to have a home office, but lots of his co-workers were sharing space with flatmates or had young kids at home, and that enhanced his empathy and showed him why some people were so keen to get back to the office.
“There were a surprising number of people who were working from wardrobes,” he says.
Culture makes the yoghurt
While businesses that embrace digital technologies are proven to be more productive, there are often unrealistic expectations placed on the tools being able to fix problems. King and Fergusson both say it’s more about learning how to use them and how to complement them.
Google’s Project Aristotle research tried to zero in on what made an effective team, and one of the main findings was that it’s not necessarily who’s on the team, but how the team works together. As a cloud evangelist, Fergusson says they were able to “pick up their laptops and move to a different place” pretty easily, but the company had spent years developing its “Slack etiquette” and figuring out the best way to use that platform to communicate with each other.
“There’s no rule book. It needs to adapt to your culture and how you work. And it’s taken a lot of time and experiments to get it to work for us.”
“That’s been really enjoyable because we’re getting all these tech guys saying ‘it’s all about the culture’, and I’m saying ‘yes, you get it!’” adds King. “That’s why my product team is getting me to spend so much time speaking to other leaders. Technology is an enabler. And technology will fail if you don’t know how to use it or create the environment in which it’s used.”
Hear our voices, we entreat
Successful flexible work policies often boil down to trust – and good measurement. King believes a lot of the more conservative workplaces were surprised at how smoothly the shift to remote working went, perhaps disproving the common managerial paranoia that workers will take the piss when they mostly just want to do a good job. But the question she gets asked the most from other business leaders is how to prove that productivity hasn’t decreased when you can’t see your staff.
“If you’re hitting your numbers, and if people are delivering their outcomes and KPIs in their roles, I don’t give a scooby whether they’re doing it from their bedroom in their slippers. It’s all about whether they deliver. And we’re not seeing any reduction in productivity so it’s working for us.”
The employees seem to agree: when surveyed, almost 90% of Vodafone’s staff thought they were just as, or more productive, at home than they were in the office. A recent Otago University study also showed that 89% of workers wanted to continue to work from home at least some of the time, paradoxically showing that lockdown was a liberation of their time rather than an impingement on their freedoms. And now, just as purpose is becoming an important recruitment issue, so too is flexibility.
“It’s staggering,” says King. “Around 70% of millennials and the younger workforce would rather have flexibility than a pay rise. And when I do interviews for our senior leaders, it is a topic for all of them … The best employers are always employee-led and I would be really cautious about ignoring requests for more flexibility because you’re going to lose talent.”
Short-term pain, long-term gain?
So is this a flexible blip born out of necessity, or a fundamental shift that could be the greatest productivity boost in a century? Fergusson’s cynical view is that if a vaccine is created we’ll gradually go back to the old ways of doing things because we’re creatures of habit, likening the spike in ecommerce to the spike in remote working.
“As soon as we leave lockdown, everyone’s back into the retail stores. We had these weird waves of pent-up demand for the office, then everyone drifted away, then people started coming back, the office got quite busy, then we had the next lockdown, and now it’s tumbleweeds again. We’ve been working really hard to get comfortable with the ambiguity of what could happen.”
But the longer that ambiguity exists, the more he believes we’ll develop new muscle memory and the more questions businesses will ask about whether they really need the long commutes, expensive office space and rigid hours.
While the technologists tend to believe their solutions will always “make the world a better place”, efficiency isn’t everything and some things just can’t be replicated online. A company is basically a collection of humans rallying around an idea and Fergusson believes that maintaining a culture does require real human contact and an understanding of intangible value.
“I talked a lot with Ryan [Baker, the co-founder of software company Timely],” says Fergusson. ”They’ve always been digital-first and focused on remote working, but one of the first things he shared with me was that being 100% remote doesn’t work. You need to have the culture, you need people coming together and sharing things. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but having had the experience, that stuff is hugely valuable and it’s the stuff we miss the most. We celebrate birthdays with cake. We do a Friday wind-down, where we all collectively breathe a sigh of relief. That’s the stuff that keeps the company glued together.”
King agrees and says her job is all about building trust and deep relationships, and that comes with time and genuine connections.
“We don’t want to have a 100% remote workforce because you miss those corridor conversations, the spontaneity, and the opportunities to nurture young talent. We are social beasts and I will always try to break bread with someone. That’s my way of showing them I care about them.”
The concepts of the two-day weekend and regular paid leave have evolved over time as workers demanded better conditions. Both are now (depending on the job, of course) completely accepted and King thinks this could be the moment flexible working starts its journey towards normality.
“I really don’t think this is going to die off,” she says.
“The companies that use their product suite better and really see this as an opportunity are going to leapfrog their competitors. There’s been a seismic shift in the way we work. And if people are resistant to that you’re just not going to get the best out of your people.”