How to Control Flexible Working by Harvey Neve

When a business begins to envision transformation, flexible working is a theme that usually comes up early on in the discussions. The most basic discussion starts with questions like ‘how do we allow our people to work at home but ensure that they’re still working’ with some of the answers being; do drop in phone calls to check up, keep an eye on the green skype light, check log in times and hold early dial-in meetings to ensure people have started work. I’ve also seen HR teams writing, and constantly updating, inevitably very long, policy documents trying to set out rules which cover all potential eventualities of this new “flexibility”. But trying to control something that is flexible, is of course totally futile and misses the point entirely. I’m sure many of you will be smiling reading this and recognise some of this behaviour from the early days when modern ways of working were beginning. Now, however, the stakes are much higher. The option to work in a flexible way is no longer considered a “benefit,” it is becoming a core “expectation” especially of the current generations entering the workforce. During recruitment, you will increasingly find yourself not only being asked if you ‘support’ flexible working, but to explain what that means in a practical sense. If your answer is just that people can job share, work compressed hours, change their core hours or be home based then you may have a problem brewing.

In modern parlance, flexible working is about much more than agreeing on a different work pattern, it’s part of a value set. One of “trust” which requires principles to guide, rather than a set of endless rules which try to control. When I’m asked what I understand by flexible working my answer is really simple:

“I trust you to deliver your work however you like, but it needs to work for you, your team and your stakeholders. Your work life balance and effectiveness should not come at the cost of somebody else’s”

This approach is, of course, an absolute nightmare for command and control managers, which is why adopting true flexible ways of working can be transformational. Flexible working thrives in an environment led by “servant leaders;” people who see themselves as just another member of the team with a role to support and develop others.

So, leadership style is an important enabler for flexible working and, as a result, another interesting question is ‘what does your office layout say about your culture and leadership style?’ Do you have an activity-based workspace?

Many businesses are now allocating fewer desks than the number of people using them. A ratio of 7 desks to 10 people is not uncommon. The theory being that some people will be in meetings, on holiday, working from home etc meaning that not everyone needs a desk every day, all day, welcome to “Hot Desking” and the associated reduction in required office space which is seen as one of the benefits of moving to more flexible working. This can work, although everyone working at home on a Monday and Friday and being in on a Wednesday can lead to either feast of famine regarding desk space (I wonder how this aligns with the principles I mentioned above?).

There are, of course, roles that require people to do the same task all day, every day, but not many, which means that you can assume that many roles in your business will have several, let’s call them, activity type personas. For example, a content designer may have the following activity personas:

  • Complex content creation and editing
  • Checking email
  • Pair writing
  • Basic web editing
  • Team meetings
  • Product/service team working

With each of these activities comes a different requirement of the workspace, ie. for complex content creation, a desk area with a large or double screen is best. For email, just space to sit for a while and use a laptop. For pair writing, a desk with enough space to pull up another chair and work on a screen with a colleague. Basic web editing just needs a big screen. Team meetings need a room or a quiet space. Product or service teamwork needs a scrum type area where things can be written or stuck on walls etc.

The office space needs to reflect this and be laid out and furnished to meet the needs of those types of activity. An exercise to help you understand what you need is to get the teams to identify how much time they typically spend doing each type of activity, then you can work out how many dedicated desks with large or double screens you need, how many scrum areas, meeting spaces and touch-down benches are required. Many activities can be done in more than one of these spaces meaning that people will move around the office during the day/week dependent on the activity they’re doing. Of course, they may well not be in the office at all because a number of these activities can be done equally, or more effectively at home, assuming that you have the right IT kit to enable remote, collaborative working.


When you see an office layout working in this way it’s usually a signal that there’s a servant leader in place. Here are two other layouts you may recognise that may signal something different.

The aircraft layout:

As in an aircraft you’ll see row upon row of seats (desks) beginning with standard class or the junior roles at one end of the row with the pay grades getting higher and higher as you move along the row. There is usually a small gap (maybe not an actual curtain!) before you get to the area where first class, the senior managers, sit. Desks are more widely spaced which helps to signal their place in the hierarchy. Then finally you get to the cockpit where the pilots sit; the Director's offices. Rooms that can be sealed off against attack and are guarded by the PAs.

The carrier group layout:

This is a layout that’s trying to look like an activity-based space, but really isn’t. In a navy carrier group, the aircraft carrier is the most valuable asset. It’s placed in the middle of an array of other vessels whose purpose is not only to provide capability to the fleet but also to provide a physical barrier that stops incoming missiles from getting to the carrier. Because, if the carrier is lost, all is lost. And so, in this office layout, the Director sits in the middle of their team, surrounded by their office staff and then the senior managers down to the rank and file radiate out. The director may be highly visible but, in reality, is protected and unapproachable.

In either of these layouts, the seniors also have a great birds-eye view of their staff so that they can check whether they are present. Everyone knows this, which means people will be in early and stay until the seniors leave as much as possible. If you’re at your desk, you’re working, right?

Different work patterns can survive in these type of office layouts, although there will be an unconscious bias against those people not as present, which will be disproportionately prejudicial to those on different work patterns, especially part-timers and those with caring responsibilities.

True flexible working, however, just can’t operate in these layouts and cultures. And with good people now more likely to expect to be able to work flexibly in an activity-based workspace, if this isn’t on offer, the risk is that they simply go elsewhere.

Flexible working and activity-based workspaces offer a step change in both culture and, as a result, in productivity, employee engagement and retention. If your flexible working policies are form driven and pages long, or if you spot an aircraft or a carrier group layout in your office, maybe it's time to transform rather than trying to control?


This article is exclusive to The Business Transformation Network.


Harvey Neve is head of digital products and transformation at Public Health England and a specialist in leadership and change management having held transformational leadership roles in both the private and public sectors, more recently leading the application of new technologies and adoption of the behavioural change required to realise the benefits of digital transformation. Harvey is also director of Inglefield Consulting who specialises in leadership and culture development.

Harvey is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and a regular blogger/speaker and lives with his wife and family in County Durham, England.