Modern management style

Mobile work changes management style

Many companies are promoting flexible working models. “Smart work” is the catchphrase. But work that is flexible in terms of time and place, desk sharing and home offices challenges everyone – particularly middle management.

Jörg Rothweiler, 24 October 2016

Digitisation, mobile devices, changing lifestyles and a high proportion of knowledge workers are driving flexible work forms. The modern working environment is highly dynamic. Fixed working hours, fixed workplaces and steep hierarchies stand in the way. More and more people are working on the go – or part-time. And more and more companies are dividing work into smaller projects managed by tailored teams. Because in addition to temporal and spatial independence, organisational flexibility is needed to take full advantage of benefits and savings.

The benefits of smart work cannot be overlooked

And the opportunities are many and varied, as studies and statistics show. For the company as well as for employees and society. Smart working improves work-life balance, increases motivation, productivity and responsibility, and makes it easier to reconcile family, job and leisure time. Thanks to part-time work, well-educated mothers remain in the labour market. The building infrastructure benefits from desk sharing, which also makes workstation changes easy – and is associated with enormous cost savings. Moreover, strain is taken off of public transport, the transport infrastructure and the environment.

In addition to the Scandinavian countries and France, Switzerland is among the pioneers. At Swisscom more than 10,000 people work flexibly, many without a fixed workplace. At Credit Suisse, it is about 14,000 worldwide, of which 5,000 are in Switzerland. Hugo Lombriser is responsible for change management at CS. He has been at CS for 36 years. Since 2010 he has supported employees and managers in the changeover to smart working. His bottom line: “The crux of the matter is the mindset.” While those who are open to the new and tend to see the benefits find the changeover easy, conservative minds have problems with it. “Old patterns break up again and again. Some feel that flexible work means freedom to do whatever you want. Others annex individual offices or secure dedicated areas in desk sharing offices”, he observes. The key area, says Lombriser, is middle management: “Top management implements the idea. But it is mainly the middle that is affected, which needs to embrace a new management style.”

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“Smart working is a clear argument for attracting young talent!”

Hugo Lombriser

Middle management is challenged

Dr. Johann Weichbrodt sees it in the same way. The organisational psychologist and assistant professor of the University of Applied Sciences of Northwestern Switzerland, School of Applied Psychology, researches mobile and flexible work and the change processes necessary for it. For various research papers and studies (see box), he talked to many affected persons and analysed what happens in the changeover. And he knows: “Middle management is most directly affected by the changes – and at the same time has the worst cost-benefit ratio.”

“Smart working must be rolled out gradually and requires clear rules.”

Johann Weichbrodt

On the one hand, says Weichbrodt, the middle tier already practices flexible working, frequently working evenings or at weekends at home – and often with no choice in the matter. On the other hand, they are located in the sandwich between pressure from above and increasing demands from below. “Middle management is already struggling with more and more demands at short notice – and now the spatial and temporal is becoming even more fractured. Conflicts are inevitable”, says the researcher. To resolve the dilemma, he recommends allowing plenty of time for the changeover – and bringing professionals on board.

Without support, the changeover will fail

This is a piece of advice that Hugo Lombriser can only underscore. “You have to closely accompany the process. Otherwise it will not work”, he warns. After all, smart working harbours pitfalls in addition to many opportunities. Weichbrodt: “By allowing work and other areas of life to blend, there is a threat of self-exploitation and chronic fatigue. That’s why clear guidelines are essential.” In addition, new technologies are needed. And the management level needs to fundamentally change their way of thinking and reorient themselves.

Lombriser: “Many managers still operate on the principle of visibility. Their supervisory authority is presence: Those who are there are working. Those who are there a long time are working a lot. But if people are flexible in terms of time and location, this system no longer works – which is just a form of ‘sham control’ anyway. Instead of presence, performance and concrete output is the control measure. This challenges management, because managers then have to know exactly what someone is doing and how much time is needed for it.” This means the boss needs to know not only his employees but also their jobs.

“Ideally, the mix between home office, team meetings and meetings at the company are dovetailed intelligently.”

Hugo Lombriser

In addition, the experts say, we need more empathy, self-management and trust. A flexible and adaptive management style is good, but the management should also set limits if the employees are overwhelmed by flexible work. The aim must be to configure all tasks so that collaboration, participation and solidarity are in balance. Accordingly, management work in the “flexible office” is not only challenging but also time-consuming. But it also offers new benefits, says Hugo Lombriser: “As a manager I can go to where I’m most needed. I am thus involved and well-informed, and I don’t have to subsequently inquire about the status of matters in meetings.”

Management is not obsolete – but redefined

That and their own role model function are also forcing top management to change their way of thinking. Because the commitment of the topmost level to mobile and flexible work is essential for success. Top management must show fairness and exemplify the idea actively. Those who will fail are those who hold on to their own mega-offices, fail to practice a goal- and results-oriented management style, cement steep hierarchies, do not reinforce the collaboration of IT, HR and Facility Management and do not approve pilot projects, probationary periods or evaluations to facilitate the transition. But those who engage with smart working, have the necessary staying power and rely on experienced support will benefit in the long term. Because the upcoming generation is calling for smart working – already today.

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