Change at Work

Beyond Flexibility: How SMEs Can Adopt a Principles-Based Approach to Flexible Work

To successfully increase work flexibility, determine what’s important to your company and over-communicate

Small and medium enterprises face unique challenges when thinking about moving to a remote workforce. Kate Rand, Group Employee Experience and Inclusion Director, shares what she’s learned from increasing work flexibility at Beyond:

  • Start with the definition of what “flexible working” is. For Beyond, they wanted to work in an agile way, with hubs where people could come together. Your team might be a mixture of remote and hubs or all remote—as long as everyone’s aligned on what’s expected.
  • Discuss what’s important to you as a business. Due to their clients, security certifications and compliance requirements are essential to establishing their credibility, which they must take into account when setting up remote teams. Every business will be different, but build your policies around your priorities.
  • Leaders must be open and responsive. Leaders must serve as “canaries”—if there’s any problem, employees must be able to turn to them immediately. What is success for you, and what are the early warning signals that show that you’re about to go off the rails?
  • Over-communicate. In any communication with employees, have a second set of eyes to make sure you’re establishing the right tone. Have regular meetings, and make sure you have strong leaders facilitating.

Read the Transcript

Kristin Demafeliz:

Alrighty, folks, thanks for joining us in our breakout room. Hopefully that was pretty easy to get into. Just know that you all are muted right now. You should be able to see Kate’s screen. Just holler at me if there’s an issue.

But before we let Kate begin, I just want to tell you a little bit about Kate. So, Kate Rand is an award-winning group employee experience and inclusion director and certified Agile HR practitioner based at Beyond. Most recently, she’s been short-listed for the HR Director of the Year and Best DNI Strategy. Beyond is a design and technology ideas company founded in 2010 and it’s featured in the Sunday Times, won a top 100 for the SME Best Places To Work.

I’m going to let Kate take it from here. She’s going to share a little bit about what it’s been like for her, what initiatives she’s been able to spearhead, give you some case studies. You’re really going to love it. And then I just want to let you all know and give you a heads up that we’ll be wrapping up this room promptly, somewhere between 12:55 Eastern and 1:00 PM Eastern, just so that we can get everyone set up for the breaks that happened after. You won’t want to miss it.

Alrighty, Kate, I will hand it to you.

Kate Rand:

Well Sam, thank you to Sam. This is my first remote conference, and I’m very excited. Thank you all so much for joining. Conscious of time, so I will just rattle through, and if there’s anything that anyone wants to dig into more detail afterwards, please don’t hesitate to contact me or reach out and we can discuss in more detail.

The topic that I’m going to talk about is using principles-based approach for flexible working. And the target audience for this is really the small to medium enterprise organizations. The reason they’re the target group for this is that they have certainly more flexibility. And the case study I’m going to use is Beyond. We’re an agency, so it really is relevant for that kind of organization.

So, Kristin gave me a fantastic introduction. I’ll just go a little bit deeper into that. I wear three main hats. I have my real job at Beyond. I’ve been there three years, and for me, Beyond is the testing ground for a lot of the innovative people processes that I push out. I’m very lucky because of the type of organization it is, that they’re very open to more progressive approaches. So I anchor everything I do in testing it at Beyond, putting the results through, and then sharing it with the wider audience. And the platform I use that as my public speaking.

I also run a meetup for HR practitioners and people who have HR responsibilities in founder-led organizations, which can be anything from the marketing director to the CEO themselves. And then I also am an Agile HR facilitator consultant, which is the other space that I work in. And this is where I talk about using Agile with a big A, ways of working in HR.

So, the case study that we’re going to talk about today is really rather principles-based flexible working that we’ve put in place at Beyond. This started around about two and a half years ago, where roughly about 200 people based across three locations … and when I joined the business we did not operate in a flexible way at all, which was something that they were very scared of doing because it’s an agency, we work on multiple different projects, we’re very much client-led. We have multiple different requirements for different clients, and often when I speak to people about flexible working, they say to me, “Oh, well, it’s not fair because we have IP restrictions for our technologies team, so how can I create flexible working that’s fair for everyone?”

Now the answer to that is principles-based, and you can set up something that works for all of the different types of teams that you have. I was very lucky when I started at Beyond that they were open to testing this out, partly because we actually ended up in a situation where we ran out of space and the need for flexible working and a more agile approach to people’s working schedules was something that was required because of the pain point that we had. So they were more open to testing this out, which actually meant we inadvertently stress-tested not only agile working but remote working, for a period of six weeks, which will take Beyond shortly to our response to COVID-19.

We had really good success with our approach to flexible working. We actually created a framework which we open source, which you can see the link here, because the approach we had really resonated with the creative industry because of the fact that it was very much around making sure you prioritize your clients. You say that you’re available but you don’t micromanage people. And one of the examples I’ll give later on is how not to do it when you’re trying to set up more of a flexible approach to working with organizations.

So, if anyone wants to go and look at the link, we open source it. It’s in 29 different countries now. We have it up and running in the U.S. and the UK. The joy of a framework like this is that you can edit it to fit the requirements in your area. We have it working in California with the legislation they have there. We have it working in New York and we also have it working in the UK. So, this is proof that it can work across various locations.

So, what do we mean by principles-based flexible working? Well, for us, we start with the definition of what flexible working is. We were an organization that had agile working. Agile working is a type of way of working that is not constrained by your location, your hours, the desk that you work on, any of those things. But it’s agile with a small a, not or Agile with a big A. So, we were an agile organization and we had some people who worked remotely. But the main focus for us was that we would work in an agile way with hubs where people could come together. We have a need for creativity, so we had the at the club.

We’re currently operating in is a mix between agile working and remote working. And we want to use this opportunity to move from remote working to a distributed model, because one of the challenges we’ve seen across the different locations is that there are some geographically-focused politics that go on in the different studios. So we’re trying to use this opportunity as a chance to break down some of those barriers and move through the approach of remote working into a distributed model, meaning that we are one company, unified together, and although we have people in different locations, there’s no need for those people to be focused around one specific location. So, just because you’re a New Yorker doesn’t mean you work for the New York studio. You are part of Beyond as a whole. So that’s something that we’re working through, and it’s very important to get those definitions right in your teams. Do you want to be remote? Do you want to be distributed or are you using agile ways of working to be able to manage the disruption that’s going on at the moment?

The second piece around that other principle, so we sat down and we said, “What is important to us as a business?” We’re an agency. Our clients are the most important thing to us, because without them, we have nothing. And the second is our credibility. And a lot of our credibility comes from the security certifications that we have and the fact that we’re very safe. We work with companies like Google. We have huge amounts of compliance and requirements that we must meet. So, that would not lend itself openly to a more progressive way of setting up a flexible working program. But we managed to overcome it, because we put together these principles.

So we said, “Okay, planning is really important, because we have clients and we need to make sure that we always look very good to our clients, that they’re planning ahead, we’re making sure everything’s set up for them, we don’t miss meetings.” We said that the clients are really important to us, so prioritize clients over location was something that we put in place before we went remote, which was to say, your client’s needs are the most important piece. If you want to work from Brazil or you want to work from the Bahamas, make sure that your client is okay with that and that they’re set up, and, you know what? Sometimes you actually just need to go with what they’ve asked for rather than just your own lifestyle. Although we do try and to make work, work for you.

We’ve obviously got being compliant with security requirements, and then being available. So, being available is not as prescriptive as, “You must be available between 9:30 and 6:00 PM. You must answer your messages within five seconds of them turning up.”It’s just common sense, and the reason we go with the principles-based idea is that you’re designing a process for the 80%, not the 20% of people that will no doubt make mistakes on this. And this is very important for the small to medium enterprises that have knowledge workers in them, because people today want to be treated like adults. They want to be treated like they have equity in the organization, and the best way to engage them is to set up principles-based approaches.

As I mentioned before, we have inadvertently ended up stress-testing the remote model that we’re in now, because we went through an office re-design, we had to throw one out the office for six weeks, and we did actually learn quite a bit at that point, which we’re now putting into place, and this was around things like, the quality can drop if you don’t pay attention to it. And it’s very important for senior executives to be the spiritual leaders of that organization. They must be vulnerable, they must be authentic and they can’t cancel meetings. They need to make sure that they are a constant for people so that they’re able to catch any early warning signs. I saw another company that uses, which I thought was a great way, they talk about setting up your canaries so you are able to identify when things are about to go wrong.

We’ve adopted some of this for the situation that we’re all facing, and we’re now talking about the fact that we are both agile and remote, and that we’re going to try and use this to break down some of those cultural barriers that we’re experiencing. Some of the ways that we have evolved our team, I have an operations team that works for me. I have office managers within that team. At this stage, Beyond is choosing to prioritize its people above all else. So we are not looking to make cuts unnecessarily, because we know that anyone we’re cutting, we’re basically throwing out into a jobless world. So we’re looking at redeploying and re-skilling people where we can. So our office managers have actually become the champions of the over-communication and the well-being of our employees, so we have mental health first aiders that are going around and making themselves very visible on Slack and on Gchat, and the office managers are working on the general feeling and making sure that meetings, rituals, routines, things like that are in place, and that they’re driving engagement for those, which is then freeing up the people partners to actually work on the individual cases like the parents that are really struggling with trying to homeschool and also cover their job at the same time.

And the psychological impact, which is a big one. We have evolved even further with this, and we’ve actually started producing our own content for people around things like impostors, how you can as an individual manage your own resilience and understand how you cope with stress, because as soon as someone goes remote, you no longer have that safety net of being able to check on them in the studio. We’re a very large tech employer. There’s a lot of evidence that says that-

Awesome. Okay. I’ve got two slides to do and then we’re good. So, I’ll be quick about this.

How not to do it. I’ve had a couple of examples sent to me in the last few days, which are always from well-meaning HR people, and I empathize with them. The one that you see on the left here is comms that went out from an HR team, and you can kind of see the point behind it, but it feels very un-empathetic if you’re the person who’s losing all your holiday. And really, it’s time now to start communicating more with kindness and making sure the messages you send are actually supporting people and thinking of the human that’s in the center of that.

The one on the right is one that was trending on Twitter, and actually someone sent it over to me, and at first read, the first part you think, “You know what? This isn’t too bad.” But then when you delve further into it, they’re really going into minutiae of how you should behave when you’re working from home. And it just screams a total lack of trust in those people. It’s almost to the point where it’s saying if you go to the toilet, you need to let me know, and this is from the Wall Street Journal. So these people aren’t working in a contact center, they’re not expecting to be micromanaged to this degree.

So it’s very important that when you are communicating with people and your people functions are doing that, that someone sense checks the document, because very well-meaning content can come across quite negatively. And this is the time when your profile as an employee will get damaged.

Takeaways, ditch the policy. If you had a flexible working policy before, how to think about how you could evolve that so it’s more principles-based. If you didn’t have one, have a go at writing that. And this should really be based around what’s important to you as a business. And that’s going to be different for everyone, and be authentic about that. Don’t be afraid. If revenue is something that’s really important to you and you need to make sure that people are turning up for financial meetings and stuff like that, own that. So, make sure your principles really do work for your organization.

Over-communicate. So, tone of voice guidelines. Basically you’re having stand-up, stand-downs. If you’re having meetings, don’t cancel them. Make sure that you’ve got a strong leader running those sessions and ask people to be present. Ask them to lean in.

And then the final one is, identify your canaries. What is success for you and what are the early warning signals that show that you’re about to go off the rails? Make sure that you have those metrics, made sure that you have the understanding of what they look like, and you share those with your executive team, so that you can spot your canaries before something bad happens. And that is it.

Kristin Demafeliz:

Well, thank you, Kate, for running us through that and keeping us grounded while we had that brief little hiccup, and appreciate everyone’s patience with all this stuff. We’re all learning how to figure out bandwidth now that we’ve all gone remotely.

So, we have a question from Julie. What crowdsourcing canaries from the whole team versus top down? Can that work?

Kate Rand:

That is the best way to do it. If you ask your team what they think is likely to go wrong or what they would say the early warning signs are, they will give you the best information.

Kristin Demafeliz:

Great. Thanks. And one more. What would you hope a canary would warn you about? I like that.

Kate Rand:

I can use the example of Beyond. When we tested it for the six-week period, we noticed that the creative quality of the work dropped [inaudible 00:16:11] and the canary that warned us about that was people missing some of the delivery deadlines, but like the smaller deadlines, or when they were turning up to have their stand-ups, they were saying that they were a little bit behind schedule. Knowing what we know now, the early canary for us was the stand-up people say, “Oh, I’m a couple of days behind.” And at that point, you need someone to then lean in and say, “Okay, well, let’s talk about this, though,” and coach them through it, and understand, is the quality of the work going to drop if you wait a few days? Why is the reason that you’re slightly behind? So, for us, canaries warn us of missing client deadlines and therefore a drop in quality work.

Kristin Demafeliz:

Thanks, Kate. And thanks for that great question. I just imagine this canary being on patrol a little bit, like watching out for folks. It’s a great image.

So anyway, folks, what I’m going to do is I’m just going to actually make sure that everyone’s set up for our next break here. So I’m going to give you in the chat a sense of what we have to work with at 1:00. So that’s coming up. By all means, if you need to do a bio break or get another cup of coffee or whatever the … if you’re able to get a drink because it’s a different time zone, good for you.

So, get what you need. We’ve got three different breaks. One’s our very first virtual dog show. We’ve got virtual collisions, so we’re going to do networking again, and then we’re going to do movement and yoga. So, definitely check any of those out. And a big thank you to Kate for presenting and sharing with us and spending some time. I know it’s late over in the UK. So, really appreciate it, Kate. I’m going to end this meeting and I’ll see you in a break room.

Published March 29, 2020

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