Flexing with tech

Technology is the foundation of a successful flexible work program
By David Potter
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/30/2017
Cloud Tech
Credit: PureSolution (Shutterstock)

More flexibility isn’t just a nice-to-have these days, it’s something people would actually be willing to pay for — 46 per cent of Canadians would take less pay for the opportunity to work somewhere that offers greater flexibility, according to a survey by WORKshift Canada.

What’s more, a desire for flexibility is not just a millennial issue: Flexible work appeals to working Canadians regardless of generation.

Even the federal government is exploring changes to the Canada Labour Code that would require all federally regulated businesses to offer a process whereby employees can request flexible work.

The nature of work is changing and the line between work life and personal life has blurred to the point of making work-life balance irrelevant. Instead of trying in vain to delineate between the two spheres, it’s becoming clear that a more appropriate goal is to integrate them.

One of the best ways an organization can support employees in doing this is through the implementation of a well-structured, flexible work program.

Flexible work, or workshifting, is a management culture in which employees are empowered to work where and when they are most effective, with a focus on their results, rather than presenteeism.

There is no one-size-fits-all model. At some organizations, the focus is on internal mobility; in others, it’s some form of remote work, whether that’s full time or part time. Whichever model an organization adopts, there are three core pillars of a flexible work program: people (human resources), space (real estate and facilities) and technology (IT).

The role of technology in flexible work

Of the three pillars, technology is arguably the most important. While the change management and policies associated with human resources might be the most difficult to implement on a large scale, there are many small to medium-sized businesses that have a fully flexible work model, without formal policies, based on a culture that has grown organically.

On the other hand, even at a smaller organization, technology is crucial to enable employee flexibility. Starting with laptops, then smartphones, and more recently the cloud and collaboration platforms such as Slack, technology has been the driver behind the rise of flexible work, with HR and physical spaces having to adapt to keep pace.

Technology does this by enabling access to the people, data and applications individuals need to get their work done. Whether an employer is looking to optimize an existing flexible work program or just getting started on its journey, here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to choosing the right technology.

The right medium for the message

Believe it or not, email has been around for almost 50 years. And in that time, it’s become an addiction, according to a 2015 survey by Adobe of 400 workers in the United States. Respondents spend an average of six hours per day checking email — despite the fact email really isn’t a very efficient collaboration tool.

Email isn’t going away anytime soon, but the adoption of a flexible work program provides a great opportunity to reassess the ways teams need to collaborate and identify the right mix of tools.

As high-quality broadband connections become the norm, video can make a huge difference for remote participants in a meeting, whether they’re at home, on the road or another office.

The ability to see the room and the body language of the people they’re speaking with can help employees feel more connected. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) products such as Zoom, Webex and GoToMeeting also make video an affordable option, and the addition of a TV and webcam can bring it easily into a company boardroom.

For short, informal communication, text and instant messaging can be great ways to check in with quick questions that save time in the long run.

Whatever the mediums made available, it’s important for teams to discuss protocols around which to use when. Email may be useful, but if something needs attention right away, a text or voice call might make more sense.

Not all forms of collaboration take place with all parties present

For work that takes place asynchronously, a collaboration platform such as Slack or Podio can reduce back-and-forth communication by consolidating conversation and file-sharing in a location that can be accessed from any device when it’s convenient.

This is particularly useful if employees are collaborating across time zones or when there are geographically distributed teams.

Another notable finding: More than 50 per cent of Canadians report they are at their most productive outside of traditional nine-to-five work hours, according to the WORKshift survey, Debunking the Millennial Myth — Evolving Perspectives on Canadian Talent, which had 2,000 respondents in 2016.

If there’s a night owl working with an early bird on a project, a collaboration platform allows them to contribute when they’re at their most productive, and pick up where the other left off.

Time to get in the cloud

A related topic is file-sharing. How many times have people sat in a meeting and talked about whether someone was looking at the current version of a given document?

With Google Drive and Microsoft Office 365, and file-sharing tools such as Sharefile and Dropbox, it’s easier than ever to move documents to the cloud. Not only does this allow files to be shared more easily, it permits co-editing of live documents which can save huge amounts of time.

It’s not just documents. An increasing number of enterprise applications can be run in the cloud, public or private, or purchased as SaaS products.

Whether it’s tools for human resources (such as Workday, BambooHR or Halogen), finance (such as Freshbooks, Quickbooks Online or Xero) or arguably the best known of them all, Salesforce, it’s easier than ever to find a SaaS solution that can be accessed from anywhere.

In addition, there are the added benefits of scalability and having the latest version.

Security matters, to a point

But many people have security concerns: “If our data and applications are in the cloud and can be accessed from anywhere, doesn’t that make it less secure?” In short, not really.

It’s safe to say the greatest security threat when data and applications are in the cloud is the same one there is today: People.

So it’s important to balance any security-driven decisions against usability. If tools are provided that are so secure, they become a pain to use, people won’t use them.

Instead, employers run the risk of generating shadow IT where people use their personal email or Dropbox accounts to share files or work from home — and you’ve lost all control of the data.

Yes, the security of the products and services you choose should be taken into consideration when making a purchase decision, but if the CIA can’t guarantee security (as seen with recent hacks by WikiLeaks), neither can you.

Don’t be afraid

Technology is a necessary component of any flexible work program and adopting the necessary components isn’t as hard as it might seem. Most consumers already use the cloud and many of the necessary technologies on a daily basis.

HR professionals have an opportunity to reach out to their IT counterparts to talk about how technology can be used to build a great employee experience — one that enables workers to be as productive as possible.

Technology is making it easier than ever for people to work when and where they’re most productive. Organizations that recognize this opportunity and adapt to the changing nature of work will benefit from increased productivity and the opportunity to attract the best talent.

David Potter is director of business development at WORKshift Canada in Toronto. He can be reached at david@workshiftcanada.com, @dlpotter or for more information, visit www.workshiftcanada.com.

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