The benefits of staying away…

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BDG’s Andy Swann asks whether we can offer our employers more by not going to the office.

When we think about physical workplace design, more and more we’re starting to look at it as a location for belonging, a place to collaborate, congregate and get the full experience of being part of the team. It’s a subject I explored for my book The Human Workplace and when it comes to offices, it’s becoming an increasingly prevalent concern. After all, with technology unleashing us from desks, do we really need to go to the workplace at all, or can we just work wherever we are?

If our workplaces now have to be designed to give people a real benefit from physically being there, does the same apply in reverse and could we actually offer ourselves and our employers more by not going to the office? With communication and cloud tech as it is, many roles can be untethered from a fixed location, providing there is a trusting, adult relationship in place between worker and organisation and that the parameters for work are set. If those things are in place, freedom to do the work in the best possible way can be given (or taken) and the potential to not only remain effective elsewhere, but increase productivity, effectiveness and personal wellbeing are increased.

I recently undertook an experiment where, over a few weeks, I worked away from the London office. Based in the USA, I set myself up on a five-hour time difference with the objective of not only seeing if I could remain effective in the day-to-day requirements of my own role, but also whether I could bring added benefits to BDG, as my employer, and investigate potential opportunities in a new market.

In short, I could. The experiment worked very well, but it took two things to really make it work. Discipline was essential on my part to account for the time difference and work in the best possible way, but most important was the two-way trust between worker and organisation. Because we had a conversation about what this would be and how it would work, the parameters and expectations were set from the start and effective working was possible. I moved my UK calls and conversations to well-aligned times of the day and focused on productivity, task and local development during my daytime. Work flowed more as part of my life than a switch-on/switch-off thing and I benefited personally as a result.

Working in a new place, exploring, gaining experiences and ideas, gave me more energy for work, more input to inject and more insight to contribute. It was a real success and when the parameters allow unleashing work from location, everyone can benefit – as long as that trusting relationship exists.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Great work happens when the right people are in the right places at the right times, doing the right things. Although I could function well, working fully remotely and at the extreme of distance from the nucleus of the company workplace, there is a sense of connection that is important too. After around three weeks, the distance was felt and, regardless of task requirements, it was great to be back with the team, sharing the experience and contributing to more than just ‘work’.

Great organisations are about camaraderie, contribution and belonging; each of these things is stronger at the centre – in the physical workplace.

It’s a case of balance. Remote working is not only possible, but beneficial to all involved, although the importance of remaining close to the team remains.

For my own work, I feel that a 3:1 ratio of remote to local works perfectly and offers the best for everyone, although that may flex and flow, depending on where I need to be to be my best. It’s the same for all of us.

Being where we need to be to do our best work and make our best contribution is essential. After all, it’s why we exist as workers. The only way to make that possible is through open conversation between employer and employee. The way it looks for each role or each individual is different, so remote working needs to come back on the agenda as an individual agreement, not a company-wide standardised decree.

It’s the essence of the agile, flexible modern workplace, where an organisation is able to respond to the demands of the world around it. Instead of starting with full control over people, dictating where they need to be and when, it’s time to focus on the work they do, contribution they can make and unleash them to do that within the necessary requirements of the company. It’s freedom, within parameters.

True remote working is an amazing thing for all involved, but are you ready to offer your people the trust and two-way conversation it takes to make it a reality?

Andy Swann is a Human, an Over-Excited Work Explorer and Change Maker at BDG architecture + design. Andy’s book The Human Workplace will be published by Kogan Page in October 2017.