How agile is your workplace?

Flexibility is not just about allowing employees to better manage their lives outside of work. It’s about placing the focus on actual results so that the time spent in the office matters less than the achievement.

A flexible approach to work and managing staff is no longer an optional extra so get on board or get left behind.

A more agile approach to work and managing staff is no longer an optional extra in an environment of increasing costs, falling productivity, shifting home lives and technological change.

Many managers relish the role of master and commander. But not Philippe Wits. The CEO of Dutch life insurance company Ardanta, Wits is not interested in dictating the direction of the company from behind the walls of a corner office or watching the clock to ensure employees are putting in the hours.

He prefers to make people responsible for their own performance. Where and when they work is of little concern to him. Wits is interested in results.

This kind of flexible approach is not only about allowing employees to better manage their lives outside of work. It’s about placing the focus on actual results so that the time spent in the office matters less than the achievement. With clear goals and measurements of success, employees are able to take greater ownership of their output, which leads to increased motivation, productivity and engagement.

The Ardanta that Wits joined two years ago was hardly a model of flexibility. A standalone company within the greater ASR group, Ardanta was a traditional business managed from the top down. Specialising in funeral insurance, Ardanta was experiencing significant challenges due to changing legislation. It had just increased its portfolio by five times, taking over a group of about 3.5 million new policies. In order to succeed, it needed to change. “The way we were working, the client demands and the amount of work, it all needed so much more flexibility,” says Wits.

Plummer: Agile work is about  working from anywhere.

Plummer: Agile work is about working from anywhere.

He implemented a more agile approach. He abolished all individual offices to encourage open communication and brought in consultants for training and workshops. (Later, the management team conducted the training themselves, something that Wits believes is an integral part of being a manager.)

He met with his management team to develop a goal for the company, which included a clear “why”, and it was communicated to all 100 Ardanta employees. From that point, departmental and individual goals were shaped. Before Wits, employees had no true measure of performance – no numbers or benchmarks. At best, people knew about their performance at their half-year review.

“I wanted people to finish their day knowing whether or not they had made a contribution to the company,” says Wits, who introduced coaching and personal development plans for each employee as well as daily stand-up meetings to track team performance. “We changed to be much more of a performance and people-orientated culture. We used to measure the amount of time spent in the office and now we measure results.

“Results also include whether a person is developing their qualities and if the team has the right skills and qualities on board to deliver the team’s goals. Only through using the power of the collective can you truly reach a flexible and high performance company.”

Since adopting its new approach, Ardanta has seen a 30-40 per cent increase in productivity. On average, Ardanta employees now generate 65 per cent more ideas on ways to improve the business, and Wits says there has been a 60 per cent drop in the number of problems escalated to him. Employees are dealing with problems themselves, and it’s made the company’s leadership feel more collective than hierarchical.
Where and when people work is of  little interest to Philippe Wits.

Where and when people work is of little interest to Philippe Wits.

“We wanted to bring the decision-making power much closer to the shop floor, because they know the problems and issues much better,” Wit explains.

“It also means we have much better solutions that stick, and are not a one-off campaign with posters on the wall.”

It’s not only smaller companies that benefit from this kind of flexibility. Global consumer products company Unilever developed an agile working program five years ago to increase capabilities across the organisation and reduce the need for travel.

Jacobina Plummer, who led the program at Unilever and now runs the Flex Works consultancy in New Zealand, is keen to point out that agile working should not be viewed as working from home. Rather, it’s about working from anywhere.

With the benefit of technology such as Skype, GoToMeeting and SharePoint, many roles at Unilever are now considered “location-free”. There are senior managers working for the New York office who are based in Europe. People run virtual teams from the north of Scotland.
When people are working in the office, there is a comfortable desk-sharing ratio of eight desks for every 10 people and workplace savings are redirected into facilities such as gyms and staff shops. “It’s about reinvesting the brand back into the building,” says Plummer.

An employer of more than 173,000 people worldwide, Unilever saved €95 million last year alone by cutting down on staff travel, says Plummer. In 2012, its reduced travel was estimated to have saved 123,000 tonnes in carbon emissions. In 2013, Unilever, which produces household basics such as soap, teabags and washing powder, ranked third behind fashionable tech companies Apple and Google in LinkedIn’s global survey of Most In Demand Employers.

Unilever also measures performance by outcomes, not set hours, which benefits employees. “I lost about 10kg just from being able to do my exercise when it suited me,” says Plummer. “But I also made sure that I first and foremost met the needs of the business.”
"We wanted to bring the decision-making power much closer to the shop floor, because they know the problems and issues much better." – Philippe Wits
It took some training dollars to achieve this shift in thinking. Communications campaigns were developed that all countries could localise. Workshops were held on topics from how to put Skype on your laptop to the more challenging question of how to manage a virtual team.

Plummer says transparency is an essential part of agile working. “You need to identify what the challenges are when people aren’t sitting in an office together and how to work as a team,” she says. “My manager was based in Connecticut and I was in London. We had a spreadsheet online where he could see exactly what I’d been working on. He could see instantly which of my projects had gone from red to amber to green.

“It’s a huge source of anxiety for line managers if they can’t see people,” she adds. “It’s easy to manage a team when you look around an office and say ‘well everyone turned up on time’. But for all they know they could be on Facebook all day.”

Jane Weber is co-founder of PresenceAtWork, the leadership development company specialising in collective leadership that helped Ardanta transform into a flexible organisation. She agrees that some managers are uncomfortable with flexibility despite the evidence which shows that it does work. “It’s about control but it’s also coming from a sense of responsibility, that you are responsible for an employee doing the work and producing the results,” she says.

“The fundamental confusion is between seeing someone at work and the actual results or outputs. Results orientation makes it easier for a manager to let go because the only thing that actually matters is that as an employee you produce the results and meet your personal business commitments.”

Of course, some roles require more office-based hours than others. It makes sense that Ardanta’s call centre staff, for example, spend more time working in the office. “It depends on what kind of work you’re doing, then you decide where to work,” says Wits, who has just been promoted to ASR’s head of life insurance.

Flexible working doesn’t suit everyone. “Some people don’t like being responsible for their own performance,” says Wits. “With every change there will be people, including management, who don’t like it.

But it’s a process and the way you embed the change is important, so we’re always sure that we reinforce the change story. The management team is much more open and vulnerable in its communication and dialogue. We do more coaching and, together with personal development plans, we track performance more carefully.”

Plummer adds that the support of leadership is essential. “If you don’t get leadership behind it, it tends to fail. Not every leader is going to get it, so don’t waste your energy on them. Focus your energy on the champions you do have.”

This article is from the April 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.

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