Many of you will have read reports of unusually quiet public transport, roads, shops and cafés across London during the first week of the 2012 Olympics Games in London. The long-running public and business-focused awareness campaign aimed at making Londoners change their working and transport habits seems to have paid off.
Civil servants along with private sector employees are taking advantage of virtual communication technologies and staying away from supposedly congested transport systems to work from home during the Olympic period. According to The Daily Telegraph, one in eight companies are encouraging their staff to work from home. Reporting on the first working day of the Olympics, the Daily Telegraph estimated that as many as 1.5 million of the 5 million people who usually work in London are planning to work from home during at least some of the Olympic period. The net result of this change of working behaviour has clearly been visible to anyone who has been in London over the last few days as we can see in the Telegraph’s photos of deserted London streets.
Yet detractors still denounce these flexible working policies, implying laziness on the part of workers and a potential negative impact on the British economy. Even MPs who perhaps should know better are criticising large banks (particularly those that are now part-State owned) for allowing their employees to work from home.
This attitude seems rather antiquated as studies show that at least 12% of the British population regularly or permanently work from home. As far back as 2001, BT claimed an increased output of 20% when they allowed 80% of their workforce to work from home at least one day a week. The working day is longer when a lengthy and tiring commute is taken out of the equation and most workers are able to work more effectively without the disruptions and noise of a busy office environment.
It seems that not only are new skills and technologies needed for effective virtual working but a change in mindset is also required, particularly among politicians and media professionals who should be behind smart- thinking organisations leading the charge on flexible working. After all, we all know that the Government’s purse can no longer afford new roads, new buses, tubes or trains but perhaps it simply it doesn’t need to. If the momentum of this “Olympic experiment” continues beyond this summer maybe the days of being packed into trains like sardines will be a thing of the past. Improving the work-life balance of employees is high on every modern company’s agenda. Working from home even one day a week can significantly improve this and deliver improved productivity when we sorely need it.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2012
It has been widely reported in the British press from The Daily Telegraph to The Daily Mail that from this week through to the end of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games thousands of London civil servants will be allowed to work from home. There has been great consternation that this will be an excuse for Whitehall staff to take it easy during the summer months, to take their foot of the accelerator rather than pulling together with the rest of London to struggle in to work on overcrowded transport systems during extended rush hour periods.
© istockphoto.com/Dmitriy Shironosov
It is strange to suggest that government workers will only be working intermittently from home when those who choose to brave the commute may find themselves losing an hour or more every day due to delays and overcrowded trains and buses. Jokes abound that home workers will be watching the Games on the TV, catching up with household chores while the government grinds to a halt, but when set up and managed effectively, home working can be equally if not a great deal more productive than sitting in an office. Perhaps the critics should take a leaf out of the government’s book and look at the benefits of setting up something similar. Here are three advantages for starters:
- Employees feel valued and trusted and are in many cases likely to work harder as a result. O2 recently surveyed staff working from home of whom over half reported that they spent most of the time they saved by not commuting on working
- Despite jokes about the distractions of the TV, fridge and garden, productivity can actually increase without the distractions of office gossip, colleagues’ interruptions and water cooler conversations
- The organisation’s carbon footprint decreases as their green credentials improve with fewer cars in the car park and less pressure on public transport systems
So what should organisations do to ensure that home working provides the best results? Communication is crucial as employees need to keep in touch with co-workers, clients and suppliers just as they would if they were sat at their desk in the office. Modern technology now allows workers to communicate through a variety of channels and platforms, using chat, voice and screen sharing as well as standard methods of email and telephone.
However, technology isn’t alone sufficient. For home working to be successful it is also a question of mind set. Workers need to feel supported and trusted but also to know that they are being monitored and challenged. Managers need to find the appropriate balance between giving autonomy and flexibility to their staff and monitoring their output and productivity. Equally, workers need to know that they have their usual support networks in place and that their performance is managed in the same way it would be in the office.
Many organisations embarking on large scale home working initiatives provide staff with training in Effective Virtual Working to help them master the necessary communication and relationship strategies for working from home effectively. Communicaid is one of several training organisations that helps companies and their employee exploit this new way of working.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2012
Once again the popular press including London’s The Evening Standard is up in arms about the amount of money local councils have been spending on training programmes during these times of cuts and economic hardship. The article cites all sorts of external and internal training courses council workers have been sent on including ‘key fob training’ seminars, a ‘Using Social Media’ day, ‘Licensing Law for Sex Establishments’ training and as well as more mainstream communication skills training programmes and executive coaching sessions for a cabinet minister.
© istockphoto.com/Pali Rao
Of course, we, as the general public, deserve to know that our taxes are being spent wisely and prudently particularly when many of us are seeing local services reduced. It is natural that hackles start to rise when we hear about government or council workers spending valuable time sitting in tick box training courses that are not aligned to the real needs and context of the individual employees. Many local authorities offer a per employee annual training allowance and while this may be a modest amount of money, employees should not be encouraged to think that it is there to be spent regardless as this can be an easy route to wasting money. Best practice suggests that organisations that prioritise developing their people should set aside the equivalent of 1 -3% of their salary bill as the annual training budget – but not that this budget should necessarily be presented as a per head allowance. Furthermore, training, or more importantly learning, does not necessarily need a monetary value to be effective. For example, internal mentoring or coaching programmes can often be as valuable if not more than bringing in an external expert.
However, it seems simplistic to deny government and council workers access to learning and development opportunities available from external agencies. Roles and responsibilities are becoming increasingly complex with civil servants communicating with and on behalf of the departments and localities they represent. They need to be well-informed about the issues they face but equally need to be highly skilled to be able to communicate with impact to a wide range of stakeholders. So, while it is easy to joke about a council worker attending a training programme at the Institute of Licensing to understand the correct use of the law relating to sex establishments, is it not important that someone who is potentially responsible for monitoring or even closing down these businesses should have a full understanding of the legal context? Equally, a senior civil servant or government minister who has been successful due to his or her technical knowledge or subject matter may need targeted coaching support to manage the complex communication challenges they confront on a daily basis.
The media is right to question how the national and local government spend taxpayers’ money. But perhaps the questioning needs to be a little bit more intelligent and rather than throwing their hands up in horror because council workers are seemingly being trained on how to use a Blackberry or create a Facebook page they should look a little bit deeper into the training policy within that particular department or authority to ensure that any training budgets are spent effectively. Good questions to start with might include:
- How are external training companies assessed and selected?
- Are training fees negotiated and are there discounts in place?
- How are training objectives set out and mapped against business objectives – for individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole?
- Is there a focus during the course on workplace application?
- How is the impact of the training measured after the course has taken place?
- How accountable are individual employees for taking ownership of their own learning and development?
If the answers to these questions are unsatisfactory then is more cause for concern that if some of the training titles on offer appear suspicious.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2011
The Evening Standard has recently identified good communication skills as essential for ensuring managers are not seen as ‘horrible bosses’. The article is clearly very light-hearted but it highlights important messages to all managers about the importance of creating excellent professional relationships and developing an authentic and credible communication style.
© istockphoto.com/ Sean Locke
Successful senior managers and leaders develop their communication skills not only to inform and instruct but to inspire and engage with their staff. If leaders want to ensure that the operational, behavioural and strategic changes they envisage are implemented they need to ensure that they communicate these messages clearly and appropriately through the right channels to the right people at the right time. They need to be sure that their non-verbal communication matches the words they use or if they communicate by email that their tone of voice has the right balance of credibility and approachability.
When good leaders communicate they put themselves in the shoes of employees and think about how they can encourage their staff to engage with and believe in their messages – and in turn, engage with the organisation. Engaging and empathetic communication from the top is more likely to inspire loyalty and to motivate employees to work better and harder for their organisation
Good leaders are also good listeners and are conscious that communication is a two way process. They are able to ask the right questions and they value and give credit to the fact that many of their staff may have expertise that they do not share or solve problems where they have struggled.
Creating the right impact as a leader or senior manager is about much more than being liked or something ‘touchy feely’ but it is also about ensuring the credibility not only of the individual but also the organisation they represent. Good communication skills are not a ‘nice to have’ but an essential set of tools for any leader managing teams, projects or campaigns. Leaders or senior managers who have risen through the ranks more for their technical than their interpersonal skills will benefit from targeted communication skills training programmes that will enable them to become more aware of their own communication style and develop skills to create more positive impact on those they are leading.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2011
Recently, you can’t seem to turn on the TV without coming across programmes putting to right the customer service skills of restaurants, hotels or retail operations. The BBC, for example, has renowned chef, Michel Roux and fashion guru, Mary Portas cracking the whip on the catering and retail sectors.
© istockphoto.com/ Sean Locke
Excellent customer service is all about communication. Demonstrating to our customers that we are listening to them and value their feedback, combined with the ability to convey clear messages with warmth and empathy will enhance our customers’ experience, however transitory. Basic principles such as making your customer feel at ease, listening attentively or knowing when to say sorry can all make the difference and, more importantly, make our customers feel that they are important to us. Research shows that happy customers not only come back but also tell other people to come and try us out! So why do some many organisations, be they retail outfits, restaurants or large banks get it so wrong and so often? Very often the answer is in the communication skills training that they provide their staff and the ongoing coaching and support that ensures standards are kept high.
The real secret to successful communication lies in the ability to gauge your customer’s own communication style and expectations and then to mirror and respond appropriately. For example, when dealing with a customer on the telephone, you may find that some customers require more than just an answer to their issue but also wish to make “small talk”. Others, however, are not interested whatsoever and want their transaction dealt with quickly and efficiently. Equally, it is important to think about how you address your customer, use humour or even deal with complaints.
Some people are instinctively more attuned communicators than others but this doesn’t mean that the relevant skills cannot be developed. Many organisations now provide communication skills training courses for their customer service teams which can cover everything from basic communication techniques through to more advanced empathy skills programmes.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2011