I’m sometimes brought into help with Smart/Agile
working projects that are running into trouble or
are not really delivering significant benefits.
Sometimes it’s the space-sharing (‘hotdesking’)
that’s running into trouble, or resentment at the
uneven application of Smart Working across
departments, or the cultural change piece (if there
is one) hasn’t really changed the culture.
In many of these cases, some kind of
role-profiling is involved, acting as a brake on
real flexibility, and compromising best use of the
office space. Why is this?
In my view role
profiling usually cements old ideas of working
practices and sets people off on the wrong foot into
the new world of work.
How does it work?
Usually role profiling involves a process for
segmenting staff into generic categories such as:
These are sometimes divided into sub-categories,
such as Flexible-in-office, Flexible-out-of-office,
super-mobile, and so forth.
Why do it? The logic is that it will contribute
to space planning by building some space allocations
around each profile. So ‘Fixed’ staff may be given a
dedicated desk, ‘Flexible’ staff will share at a
certain ratio of desks to people, and ‘Mobile’ staff
at a different ratio. It may also be tied to the
provision of technologies, equipment (such as a desk
for a homeworker) or even to permissions, such as
being able to access systems remotely.
It’s easy to why organisations do this. It seems
to help prepare teams for the physical aspects of
change, engages them in some kind of dialogue about
working practices, and provides a kind of
security-blanket reassurance that ‘one size doesn’t
So what’s the problem?
For an organisation committed to continuous
improvement, profiling might operate as a passing
phase. As people find it doesn’t really work, the
categories soon fade away and people adopt genuine
Smart Working rather than some kind of halfway
house. On the other hand, an organisation might
simply get stuck in a moment, and need help to get
out of it.
These are the key reasons why role-profiling can
lead to bad practice:
- It creates different categories of
flexibility, based around jobs rather than
looking at the capacity for doing individual
activities differently. Any approach that
focuses on whole roles, rather than the
activities that make up the work of a team, just
won’t deliver the benefits.
- Who says who will be in which category?
Usually this is left to the line manager. And
different line managers will adopt different
approaches, depending how comfortable they are
with the change as a whole. Sometimes someone at
director level will intervene, and declare a
whole function must be ‘fixed’. A different
director may take a different view. One manager
will not allow anyone to be a homeworker, while
another encourages it. It becomes a jumbled mess
provoking resentment across the organisation.
- Alternatively – there’s a tick-box approach.
Flexibility becomes a bureaucratic exercise that
ignores the nuances of different ways of
- It gets set in stone. Potential improvements
to working practice are prevented by policy.
- Different cultures and routines of work set
in for different categories of employee. As a
result face-to-face and management by presence
may remain the default office culture, making
life difficult for those who practice more
flexibility and mobility.
- People resistant to or fearful of change
fight to labelled ‘fixed’. They want ‘their’
desk and their fixed territory in the office.
- The more people who are designated as
‘fixed’, the more difficult it is for
space-sharing to work. Even though there may in
principle be desk-sharing for all, and a clear
desk policy, in practice space is colonised.
Those who are mobile end up fighting for a
reduced amount of space.
- The continuing desk culture means that there
is less space for the other desirable
collaborative and touch-down spaces.
In the end, everyone feels like they are working
in the same way, only with less space and a
space-sharing policy that doesn’t work as intended.
What should be done?
After more than 20 years of being involved in
these kinds of changes, I believe the best option is
just not to do it. It leads to more problems than
benefits. And even if it goes fairly smoothly at the
time, it will slow down the delivery of significant
benefits and will require a big rethink later. Might
as well get it right at the outset.
So what should you do?
- The key is to base flexibility around the activities
people do, not whole roles.
- 'Think with your new head on, not the old
one.’ Examine all working practices and
processes to see how they can be done more
effectively in a Smart Working context. Then see
how this impacts on the possibilities for where,
when and how work is done – and sometimes by
- Start from the principle that everyone has
access to flexibility – everyone is a Smart
Worker. Then see what are the genuine factors
that require activities to be done at a
particular place or a particular time.
- Facilitate team agreements about the best
places and times for doing work, ways of
interacting, requirements for reporting, how
space is used in the office, etc.
- Identify the constraints that need to
be overcome in future iterations of improvement
– e.g. replacing paper-based processes that
anchor people unnecessarily to a particular
location, and plan for the continuation of the
Smart Working journey.
This kind of organic and dynamic approach to
changing the way we work will succeed far better
than the bureaucratic and policy-focused approach of