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Dr Yvette Blount

Despite huge changes in technology and policies that support flexible work arrangements, telework is still not “business as usual” in most organisations, and managers are holding it back, says an expert in the field.

Dr Yvette Blount, coordinator of Macquarie University’s Australian Anywhere Working Research Network, has reviewed all the academic literature on ‘anywhere working’ – nearly 1,000 articles dating back to the 1970s – and found a key reason it hasn’t been adopted more widely is management resistance.

Although employees have a legislated right to request flexible work arrangements, many managers still fail to appreciate its business benefits and view it as a privilege rather than a right, she says.

They also realise the challenges associated with managing a remote worker, such as scheduling communication that would otherwise be incidental, can add to their workload.

In theory, a manager who is refusing a flexible arrangement must give good reason for doing so, but in practice, saying “it’s not going to suit the business” or “it’s going to impact on the customer” might be all it takes to dismiss a request, Blount says.

“Some organisations have [addressed that issue] but it’s still very much about the individual manager being supportive,” she says.

Her research also found managers are often encouraged to focus on presenteeism and tough performance targets, and receive no reward or encouragement for adopting flexible working arrangements.

Particularly in industries where remote work “introduces a lot of complexity into the way managers have to manage their team”, support for flexible work – both among managers and their superiors – might be so low that the employer’s policies are virtually useless.

Sooner or later, however, managers are going to have to start rising to the challenges associated with anywhere work, because many businesses’ viability will depend on it, Blount says.

This will be particularly so in cases where ‘anywhere workers’ aren’t just employees applying for mutually agreeable flexible arrangements, but also freelance workers with much-needed skills, operating on their own terms.

“Often you will have a core set of employees, and then you need to bring in freelancers; maybe those freelancers work in different time zones, they might work in different parts of the country, or overseas,” Blount notes.

“Managers are going to have to deal with this more and more, because the trend is very much that more and more people are going to be working as freelancers.”

Add to this the spread of the NBN, which will enable better access to richer forms of communication such as Skype, and a new generation of workers who are used to “much more flexible ways of learning and working and collaborating” and won’t want to “sit in cubicles all day”, and anywhere working becoming “business as usual” seems inevitable, Blount says.

“We’ve [also] got the ageing workforce and people with disabilities – we have to think about inclusion; and as people transition to retirement, we’re going to want to keep them in the workforce because we need their skills and capabilities… so managers are going to have to be managing quite a diverse workforce.”

Distance needn’t disconnect

A key skill managers will need to ensure flexible arrangements are successful will be the ability to make individuals feel connected to the organisation.

“One of the issues that’s in the literature is that often people that work remotely feel isolated – socially and professionally,” Blount says.

“One of the reasons why this type of working isn’t ‘business as usual’ and often is not sustainable is because the workplace is not just for work, it’s also for social interaction.”

But there are ways to make remote workers interact with each other and feel connected, even from a distance.

One company uses social media to hold exercise and weight-loss competitions, for example, and pays for employees to attend an annual get-together that’s “part conference part holiday”. It also ensures teams meet face-to-face at least once a month, Blount says.

“They’ve got very good policies in place, where they’ve really thought about this. They… keep an eye on people, they make sure those people feel connected, and if they feel they’re not, the manager will have a one-on-one,” she says.

Managers also need to ensure remote workers aren’t disadvantaged by being physically absent from the office, which has caused some employees, particularly women, to miss out on promotion and training opportunities.

“That’s one of the management issues as well – saying, ‘Hold on a minute, even though that person is not in the office very often, they’re still part of the team and this training opportunity would suit them and help with their development’,” Blount says.

Blount’s research was unable to determine what happens when flexible arrangements are turned down, however.

“If the manager says ‘no’, what does that mean in terms of the employee’s productivity, retention of the employee, those sorts of things?

“If you’re an HR manager I think that’s something that should be captured: how many requests, then… track what happens to that employee,” she says.