Smart work: ¿Are the days of offices over?
Phones, watches, buildings, cities… Everything has been described as “smart” over recent years. But what about work? Could there be such a thing as a “smart job”? So-called “smart work” is emerging as a new archetype in which the efficiency of workers is more important than their physical presence.
For a long time now we have heard about “telework” and “flexibility” in the workplace as the cure-all for issues of productivity and wellbeing. However, most of us wake up an hour or two before the working day begins, in order to have time to get to work. We have a defined schedule, which is more or less flexible, and we work in a physical office with walls, desks, PCs, meeting rooms etc. So how will this change?
In Spain, only 6.7% of employees work on the phone and only 13% of Spanish companies offer their staff this option, compared to 30% of German and French companies and 95% of British businesses. This data comes from a February 2013 study entitled Working anywhere and at all hours: the effect on the world of work (Trabajar a toda hora, en cualquier lugar: Efectos sobre el mundo del trabajo, in Spanish) which was published jointly by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Eurofound.
Nevertheless, the drawbacks of telephone-based work are more about culture than technology. In recent years, increasingly small and lightweight devices have made it possible to communicate from almost anywhere: cafés, airports, and even on board a plane (where the airline offers internet access). When a company provides its personnel with the necessary tools, they can be operational at any time and anywhere: they can decide where, when and how to work. This is one of the principles on which so-called intelligent work or “smart work” is based. The organisation and management model goes one step beyond telephone work and does not just stop with bricks and mortar. Rather it puts paid to traditional office hours and the limitations that these hours impose.
The ultimate aim is to attract and retain talent in companies, as well as putting an end to the need for any physical or virtual presence. Sitting at a desk in an office or being connected to the workplace from home from nine-to-five does not guarantee employee efficiency. “Smart work”, on the other hand, liberates work from the physical office space, but also from its routines and habits. That is to say, the employee enjoys greater flexibility and autonomy, so that it is down to the individual to organise their work as they see fit. Work is no longer evaluated by the time spent doing it, rather it is assessed according to objectives and results. The where and when are outdated concepts.
But isn’t it a risk for businesses? Although there isn’t a magic formula, according to Achieving success with a flexible workplace, a report published by IBM in 2012, those companies that implement flexible practices, such as those already cited, do not only save on costs, but they also see a 20% increase in productivity.
"The collaborative atmosphere allows the various members to tighten their belts and build bridges between entrepreneurs"
The risks of flexible work: constantly connected
In theory, a more flexible view of working practices might help us to fit work around our personal lives. However, if this is not done correctly, there is a real danger of blurring the lines between work and leisure and of creating a mountain of work. In fact, the latest National Survey on Working Conditions published in April 2015 by Spain’s National Institute for Health and Safety at Work (Instituto Nacional de Seguridad e Higiene en el Trabajo de España - INSHT) shows that 24% of employees who work from home in Spain, as well as 33% of those who do it from another remote location, work more than 40 hours per week. This compares to 19% of those who are based in a defined workplace.
The problem is that the technology that enables us to work when we want to is the same tech that keeps us constantly connected. The INSHT report highlights that stress levels and sleep disruption among those who work remotely, and who are permanently connected, are twice as high as those who work in an office. Experts recommend limiting off-site working to two or three days per week and allowing workers to disconnect during their free time, something that countries like France have even legislated on.
"The companies that implement flexible practices see a 20% increase in productivity"
Nonetheless, faced with the option of working from anywhere, we do not always decide to do so, or at least not to do so alone. We are sociable beings, and so we need to interact with other people. “Co-working” spaces have grasped how to make the most of this situation by offering entrepreneurs, freelance workers and SMEs both a cost-saving infrastructure and the possibility of creating and being part of a community of other people who find themselves in the same situation.
“The collaborative atmosphere allows the various members to tighten their belts and build bridges between entrepreneurs, but also between entrepreneurs and the corporate, public and freelance sectors. This produces synergies at a business level as well as personal relationships”, explains Emilio Frojan, who manages co-working spaces for Impact Hub Madrid (Spain). “In spaces like the Hub, business opportunities come to light and proliferate, and there is an emotional support network on hand”, he adds.
It would seem that, thanks to “smart work”, workers will have more autonomy than ever when organising their workload. However, it is unlikely that physical offices will completely disappear. The most likely outcome is that they will become meeting places similar to existing “co-working” sites, places in which an exchange of experiences and opinions between people who work for the same company can happen. This is already the modus operandi at Microsoft’s headquarters in Spain, where the majority of staff spend more than half of their working day elsewhere and then go to the office for actual meetings. In Madrid, at EY’s locations, this is also happening; only 43% of employees are in the office at any one time. Even at Banco Santander, the company has been promoting what it calls “flexi-working” since 2015. This is a way of organising work based on the preferences and choices of each member of staff. In this way, each team adapts its schedules and workplaces to what most suits them.
The challenge that we are facing is not therefore how to work from outside the office, rather it is about how to maintain human contact in an increasingly digital world.