The secrets to productive workplace flexibility

29 March 2021

Money & Life team

Money & Life contributors draw on their diverse range of experience to present you with insights and guidance that will help you manage your financial wellbeing, achieve your lifestyle goals and plan for your financial future.

Colin D. Ellis provides six tips – three for the business and three for the individual – for more effective and productive flexible working.

One of the positive things to come out of the COVID-19 crisis was an increase in empathy. As everyone was suddenly working from home, managers and businesses took an interest in how people were coping and the situations that they faced at home. Many employees were actively encouraged to take breaks from screens and ensure they got the right amount of rest.

Of course, post-COVID-19, coming into the office while sick is a definite no-no. However, as people become more comfortable working from home, the temptation to get the laptop out or turn the PC on, instead of recovering from illness, is ever-present. So, there’s still some work to do.

I’m a big supporter of flexible working, but only if it supports a healthy balance for employees and doesn’t increase the stress on them or their lives.

As a result of COVID-19, barriers to more people working flexibly were finally removed – it’s just a shame that it took a global pandemic for businesses to act. Thanks to an investment in collaboration tools and a commitment to working differently, it’s never been easier for employees to work remotely. Faster internet connections and the evolution of technology will provide further opportunities for organisations to reduce their office space and save time and money as a result.

Cisco is one organisation that’s on to this. Almost 90 per cent of its employees telecommute once a week. It saves over three million hours of commuting, providing the organisation with $270 million more productive time and stopping over 47,000 tons of carbon from being pumped into the atmosphere. The numbers for remote working certainly stack up.

Having a well-defined culture provides the foundation for great remote working. Agreement on the six pillars of culture – personality and communication, vision, values, behaviour, collaboration and innovation – ensures that everyone understands what’s expected of them at all times, and keeps them both physically and emotionally connected.

If your practice has yet to do this work, then here are six tips – three for the business and three for the individual – for more effective and productive flexible working.

For the organisation

  1. Trust your people

It seems ridiculous to start with this point, but I still think that many organisations and businesses see trust as something that needs to be ‘earned’, rather than ‘assumed’. One survey found that 78 per cent of people don’t fully trust their workmates! If you’ve taken the time and effort to hire people who have the technical and emotional skills to do the job, then set expectations clearly and let them get on with it. If you expect the worst of people, then it’s likely that you’ll get it.

  1. Invest in collaboration tools

There are literally hundreds of tools that you can use to stay connected, and you should be using one regardless of whether people are working remotely or not, in order to cut down on the amount of emails sent. It’s important that you pick one and then ensure that everyone is trained in how to use it properly, that it’s used consistently and that it evolves over time to stay relevant and support productive work.

  1. Set expectations well

By far the biggest issue with flexible working is the fact that expectations are neither set nor managed well. This includes expectations around how the individual sets themselves up for success, about when they should be online and offline or simply about the quality of their deliverables. When expectations are set and managed well, the work gets done.

For the individual

  1. Set up your workspace

Just because you’re not in the office doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set up your workspace properly. To work from home effectively, you need a good internet connection, a laptop (PC or Mac) with all of the right applications installed and preferably, a light-filled space in which to work. You also need to remove all distractions to allow you to focus on the job at hand.

  1. Establish your routines

No lounging around in your PJs all day, let’s deal with that one first. While you don’t have to get dressed in office attire, you still have to get dressed. Your attitude must be right and you can’t be putting the washing on or popping to the shops when there’s work to be done. The simple rule when working from home is to ask yourself: ‘Would I do this if I were in the office?’ If the answer is no, then it can wait until you finish for the day, whatever time that is.

  1. Stay in constant contact

Working flexibly can be a lonely business, so it’s critically important that you stay in touch. Chat tools can help, but it’s also nice to see another face or speak to someone on the phone. Videoconferencing is so simple to use these days that it’s a mistake not to use it. Oh, and when people dial you in for meetings, you have to remain focused – you can’t be tapping away on your laptop or nipping away to get a drink. Don’t forget the simple rule from point number two!

Stay focused on the outcomes

And finally, when it comes to working remotely from home or away from the office, individuals need to be disciplined about when they ‘close down’ for the day. The focus needs to be on the outcomes expected, rather than setting yourself a long list of ‘stuff to get done’.


Colin D. Ellis is a culture change expert, author and international speaker. He has more than 20 years’ experience building and leading teams in public and private sector organisations.