HR Means Business 4: Making Remote and Flexible Work Successful for our People

Hosted by

Mervyn Dinnen

Analyst, Author, Commentator & Influencer

About this episode

HR Means Business 4: Making Remote and Flexible Work Successful for our People

Host: Mervyn Dinnen

Guest: Gemma Dale, Senior HR Lecturer and Researcher at Liverpool John Moores University

In this episode Mervyn talks to Gemma Dale, who is a senior HR lecturer and researcher at Liverpool John Moores University and previously a senior HR professional. She is also regarded as one of the UKs most Influential HR thinkers and is a two time author of books about remote and flexible working.

– Evolution of remote, flexible, and hybrid work

– Impact remote work has on wellbeing

– How managers can address the transition to flexible work


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Transcript follows:

Mervyn Dinnen 0:12
Hello, and welcome to the HR Means Business podcast. I’m Mervyn Dinnen, your host. And today it’s an absolute pleasure to be talking to Gemma Dale, who is an author, lecturer and and I would say in my world, a bit of a, I won’t say expert, but very much full of knowledge about the whole area of remote, flexible, hybrid and asynchronous working, which is obviously very much a topic that we’ve all been talking about our last two or three years. Hello, Gemma, would you like to tell us a little bit about your background?

Gemma Dale 0:44
Thank you so much for inviting me to talk to you today. I am a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University Business School and the author of two books relating to this topic. So flexible working, which is really a sort of HR guide to how to introduce flexible working in your organization. And then more of a practical book, How to work remotely, which, as the title suggests, is all about the skills that you need to work in a remote or hybrid way.

Mervyn Dinnen 1:13
Okay, thank you. And those books are available from Kogan page as an item in the UK and the US and wherever you’re listening from. Now, this, this is not a COVID pandemic related topic of interest for you, because this is something you were interested in beforehand, isn’t it?

Gemma Dale 1:32
It was and I’d been working on flexible working and certainly talking and writing about it a lot before the pandemic. But of course, that was a time when certainly in the UK, the pace of adoption of flexible working was I think the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development described it as glacial. And, you know, we although we’ve been talking about flexible working, and its potential for many, many years, and it did not really take off until it was forced, by obviously a COVID-19.

Mervyn Dinnen 2:09
Okay, and what I mean, in terms of the, I suppose the earlier days for you and your researcher, what were you finding? And how did that begin to shift, I suppose, almost immediately in 2020.

Gemma Dale 2:22
Well, what I think’s really interesting about remote work is is actually how long we were talking about it and forecasting it. And not everybody realizes this, but the term actually arose in the mid 1970s. In the US, and telecommuting and teleworking, as we used to call it then and we still do in academic research was seen as a potential way of solving the old crisis and reducing computing. And if we actually look at what sort of academics and management gurus were saying, in the late 70s, into the 80s, and even the early 90s, we were predicting this huge potential around remote work, people thought that half of the knowledge workers globally would work from home, or in sort of what we now call co working or third spaces. And of course, it didn’t happen. And it wasn’t technology that got in the way because that technology did come along, as we all know, from home broadband to smartphones. And then as we you know, got a little bit further on the kind of platforms that allow us to meet virtually, but it just didn’t take off. And actually, a lot of that was stigma around people who might want to work in a flexible way and all our perceptions about whether that meant they were use your term a bit of a skiver or uncommitted or unengaged or motivated or didn’t care about career progression. And lots of fears as well. And obviously, as well as being an academic, I’ve got a long career as an HR practitioner. And my own experience then was when people would say, can I work flexibly? Can I do a little bit of work from home, they’d be the big sharp intake of managerial breadth. And all those questions would come out about, you know, how will I know they’re working, which, you know, now Microsoft recently researched and called productivity paranoia, which I think is a great term. So, you know, a history of not allowing it, not wanting to do it not taking off as it could have done a forced period of force change. And then all the things that we’ve seen since March 2020, from the ebbs and flows of different lock downs and different rules and restrictions in different countries through to return to Office, and then all the different headlines we’ve seen about companies that have embraced it. And companies that haven’t enough said to everybody, get yourselves back in the office five days a week.

Mervyn Dinnen 4:52
And it’s interesting because I think back in the 1980s, I worked in a firm of accountants and just listening to you talk, it kind of jogged my memory that certain, certainly for senior people like partners, if they were working on something very big or important or something, they didn’t want distractions, they would work from home for a couple of days. Because if they’re in the office, people knock on their door, the phone rings, or the Daily Post, this is before email, I’m afraid, even a daily post arrives with things. And that was that wasn’t seen as anything strange. Obviously, if one of the audit seniors or the tax juniors or somebody said, I’d like to do this from home tomorrow, then it would have been no. But so I think at one level, it’s, as you said, it dates back to the 70s 80s. At one level, it’s kind of been acceptable, possibly for a certain level. But now, of course, this is, I suppose, across the whole spectrum, although, as we know, before anybody shouting at the laptop, or wherever they’re listening to this, yes, I know that just over half of people who work in the UK can’t work flexibly and remotely because of the jobs they do. But we are talking about, I suppose the significant minority, who do take up a lot of space in the narrative, mainly because a lot of the people who that continue the narrative and discuss the narrative are people who can work flexibly. So when you started looking into this, I suppose what were the first things you found that possibly surprised you, or were different to what you expected them to be?

Gemma Dale 6:25
I think one of the big surprises for me post pandemic was just how quickly people adapted, but not just how quickly they’re not just how quickly they were able to identify, I want to keep working in a remote way. And we’ve all seen those headlines, there’s been so many surveys done it over the last couple of years. But actually, the first of those surveys were undertaken during actually quite a lot of still restrictions around leaving your home setting. The UK, schools were closed at the time, and lots of those early surveys came out and just consistently are globally. So whether you look at data from the US, Europe, South Africa, Australia, this voice is really consistent around wanting to work in a remote way. Not all the time. Of course, most people want hybrid that the percentages of people who want to go back into an office full time, or who want to work from home full time, definitely in the minority. So I think that was always a really interesting thing for me that even though we were working in this new way, and we were in the middle of a crisis, we were fearful of our healthier, we remember those times when before we had vaccines.

Gemma Dale 7:38
And before we even really knew you know what, what COVID could do to our world, we were still able to say, I’m enjoying this, and I can see the benefit of it. And I want to keep some of it. And I think there’s something in there around, you know, the real strength of feeling the roundness. But also, I think the extent to which and perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise, because we know that when people live through complex situations, whether it’s house, bereavement, divorce, etc, we know that that often has a very changing impact on them as an individual, but I think, you know, the extent to which we’ve seen issues around people wanting to live differently, work differently, really coming to the forefront. And there’s some really interesting research come out from Gartner a few months ago, where they really found that people, you know, want to work in a place that aligns with our values are prepared to really revisit what they want from work and work in their working life.

Mervyn Dinnen 8:41
Okay, that’s interesting. The, I suppose it leads me on to one of the questions that I often when I’m asked about it, speculate on which is the question of dedicated space. So it’s easy for me, I’m, as anybody who’s met me when I’m slightly older, kids have grown up and left home, although one of them is actually back here at the moment. I have, I have a space, I’m talking to you from a room, I can shut the door and I can work it. Opposite is a property a flat with five people flat sharing, they don’t have a dedicated space. So they are all people who have been working from home over the last two, two and a half years, there are a couple of them now are working more flexibly. And but but they are pretty much spending the day working in their bedrooms and then sleeping in their offices are there, two or three of them are sharing a very small space to work from out. I mean, as your research found much differential around this kind of dedicated space. If people don’t have that they’re more likely to want a different arrangement or what does it show?

Gemma Dale 9:49
And this isn’t something I’ve personally researched, but there is a lot of really quite interesting research around it. And actually some of this research dates back as far as the 90s in those very early homework In situations, what we know is this individually, we have these ideas around what is work, and what is home. And a lot of these ideas are kind of socially constructed. And and we bring a lot of stuff to that. And you know, for example, you know, the extent to which each person either wants to bring those together and integrate them, or to what extent people want to separate them. And we’re all on a spectrum from sort of extreme separation and segmentation on one end to extreme integration on the other. The enforce working from home period, kind of forced integration. So people were, you know, working on kitchen tables working and trying to do childcare at the same time. So that was a really complex time for lots of people. And for people who like segmentation, who really for psychological reasons, for their well being need to have clear lines, they lost that and that was a real source of stress. I think going forward, some people need that separate space more than others, some people really comfortable with integration. They’re the kind of people who will have you know, their work emails on their personal phone, they’ll have one calendar for everything, you know, they bring the two things together, and they’re not bothered, if they’re working in the living room when the kids are running around.

Gemma Dale 11:26
For other people, that would be a disaster for their mental health, for their sense of internal work life balance, then they need those clear boundaries, and they need that boundary management approach. So it’s really individual, as indeed a most of the aspects around kind of well being work life balance that turn up around remote work, I think there is a real challenge for those individuals, like the ones you describe, where they need the separation, they need that separate space physically and mentally, but they just can’t get it because of their living situation. And I think that’s why when organizations are designing their policies around these kinds of things, they need to recognize everybody’s different. And when we are too rigid, when we say it’s three days in and two days at home, or whatever particular balance, we’ve decided is the right one, we have to recognize that they’re not going to work for every individual. And people will be at their best from a productivity point of view, from a wellbeing point of view, from an engagement point of view, when they’re able to personalize how they work as much as possible, within the boundaries of what the role will allow. And that’s how we achieve the best possible situation for each individual. And as a knock on impact into the organization itself.

Mervyn Dinnen 12:49
I’m glad you raised the question of well being there You and I both been involved in a piece of research recently, which has looked at well being in the workplace. I’ve been involved in a couple more this year. And it’s one of the topics that in this podcast, I want to explore as much as I can. What I mean from your research and from I suppose the people you talk to your interviews, how how has wellbeing been impacted? And what are the kinds of things that individuals and organizations are doing to try to ensure that when people are working flexibly remotely, their well being is not their Well, being a mental health is not suffering?

Gemma Dale 13:30
I think I would sum up the relationship between remote work and wellbeing with two words. And it’s complicated. Because some people thrive, some people absolutely thrive. They are able to channel their commute or greater autonomy into things that support their well being for more time with family, to exercise to cooking better food. And, you know, from the research that I did an image on walls with colleagues in 2020, that was a really, really clear message. But at the same time for other people during the pandemic, particularly because that was a very complex time. It was a time of isolation, working from home, reduce social contact, and again, very situational obviously, even things like ergonomic issues from sitting on poor chairs, not designed for, you know, eight hours of desk base work. So all sorts of complicated factors. But I think we have to sort of take that pandemic period and say, That was a very, very specific time, and how much can we realistically extrapolate into the future? We know that we need to support people when they’re working in in all sorts of ways. You know, we know that workplace well being is a challenge for many organizations. And there are some really kind of now issues that we’re all familiar with. that will be impacting on that clearly like the cost of living and all the stress associated that comes from from from that situation. But I think as we start to move into the future, it falls to organizations and HR departments to really understand that contradictory nature of the relationship between remote work and well being.

Gemma Dale 15:20
And we have to be able to support people to be well, in whatever format they’re working, whether it’s 100%, offers 100%, remote or that hybrid mix. And, and I think, again, for me, a lot of it comes down to that sort of personalization. I think one thing that organizations do need to be thinking about is normalizing that conversation about work life balance, because it’s one of those terms doesn’t really have a clear definition. What do we mean by it, but we need to be having that conversation, we also need to be having a conversation around digital presenteeism, because we know that when working from home, it’s really easy for the working day to extend and to intensify, and really be long body of research on that. And we know that those tools, you know, you talked about asynchronous work at the start. A synchronous tools are brilliant, but when do we turn them off? And if somebody else is busy working and firing messages out at a time, we’re not working? How do we kind of make it okay, that you can set again, boundaries coming back to that thing around boundaries, when people are working in flexible ways. We might ways hybrid ways, boundaries are everything. And again, that’s a conversation that I’m not sure every organization is having with its people.

Mervyn Dinnen 16:42
I’m glad you said that, because I wanted to ask you, particularly about managers, I suppose frontline managers as well, regarding these conversations, how are they coping with it? I mean, in terms of again, what you’ve seen, I dare say there’s been a bit of a learning curve over the last two years or so but But now, we’re moving to a time when again, in certain sectors, this has become more of a norm. You mentioned the productivity, paranoia research from Microsoft, which I’ll come to in a moment. But in terms of managers, firstly, what what support is there for them? And from your experience and research and the interviews you do? How well do you think they are coping and able to lead a remote flexible hybrid team?

Gemma Dale 17:26
I think it’s really mixed again. And I think it’s an area we need to do more research. And I think we have seen little bits of that coming through from some of the, you know, the big organizations that are in this space researching like the Future Forum, Gartner, Microsoft, Deloitte, for example. But I think we need to do more about understanding that experience. We’ve talked a bit about leaders, and we often focus that on the productivity question, you know, are people productive? Are people productive. But I think we need to do much more about understanding the day to day experience, have this sort of first level to middle level manager. So I’ve got a plan to do some research on that next year. But I think in terms of what HR teams are offering within their organizations, some brilliant, some are putting lots and lots of support, training, guidance, sharing, the new thinking is it’s coming through. But I have seen some surveys, which indicate that a lot of managers have had no training at all. And similarly, we’ve also seen survey findings that employees have not been taught how to work in this way as well. And I think there’s, it’s easy to make an assumption that, well, we all learnt this stuff during the lockdown. And we’ve all figured it out now. But actually, I don’t think that’s true. And I think hybrid is a completely different ballgame than working 100% remote during a crisis situation. And there’s so much to think about. There’s the practical elements, like who’s in where and how am I making sure everybody’s up to speed? And how are we having a hybrid meeting and making sure everybody’s voice gets heard? But then those bigger issues as well, like how do we ensure wellbeing? How do we ensure inclusion, particularly, as well? So I think, if I would sum it up, again, mixed picture, but more work to do, I think, especially in those key spaces around wellbeing, communication and inclusion.

Mervyn Dinnen 19:26
And how would you recommend people get started? So I mean, something like this, if people are listening to this, hopefully, and nodding along that their experience is this that it’s not really it’s not come together yet. The managers aren’t really on top of it. There’s no, I suppose there’s no plan. Where would you recommend organizations or HR leaders start?

Gemma Dale 19:49
I think this with any of these things is there’s some real benefit in going out to people in your own specific context and asking them what they need. So going back to basics with a bit of a training needs analysis, and having that conversation, one of the things that I’ve seen really work in several organizations is getting managers together, almost in a in an informal space without an agenda and actually not running a training course. But getting managers to form a sort of supportive community and talk about how are they doing this new stuff? What challenges are they experiencing? And and what successes have they had, and I’ve seen that work in practice and be really, really quite powerful. I think I’m definitely you know, there is some practical things like how to run hybrid meetings really, really well that organizations should definitely be thinking about, because that does impact significantly on things like voice and inclusion. But I think the other one, if I was just sort of saying topics, to think about in that wellbeing space, and in that work life balance space. Those are those are really key issues, I think that we we should all be looking at, because some of the areas around hybrid work and all the other new ways of working that people are trialing because, of course, it’s not just hybrid, you know, we are seeing companies experiment with four day weeks with nonlinear working days with a synchronous work in general, we need to understand the potential for long term influences to things like progression, pay broader inclusion, and we need to be sort of monitoring and planning for those now.

Mervyn Dinnen 21:30
Good advice, productivity paranoia, you mentioned earlier, and it’s obviously very much a term now it this often happens, you get it report. And there is a term in it. And suddenly, it’s what everybody leaps leaps onto. It’s kind of like that the HR in the age of hashtag outrage. I like to say it because every morning, there’s another utility, there’s another hashtag. What would you there will be people listening? I’m sure that would say, well, actually, I fully understand that. You know, I don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t know how productive they are at that kind of approach. Which when I when I speak to people who have retired from the workplace and talk about the stuff we talk about? The answer is usually well, of course, they want to work from home because then they didn’t have to do anything. How, again, would you recommend organizations or or HR people begin to embrace this productivity paranoia not to be paranoid, but actually to kind of let the paranoia go?

Gemma Dale 22:36
It’s a really difficult question. And I actually secretly quite liked the term productivity paradox, because I think it really sums up what is happening. But underneath this is trust. And that has always been the barrier. So whether I go back to the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, the naughties. That has always been the barrier, it’s not been technology, it’s not been people’s ability to work from home, we’ve proved that because we carried on being productive during the pandemic. It’s one of those beliefs and myths that seems to disregard the evidence, because survey after survey, before the pandemic, during it, since shows that people are more productive, or as at least as productive as they would be in the office. The problem is, there’s no real one settled definition of productivity. And we very often rely on people’s own views of that productivity, and how do we judge productivity with knowledge work anyway? You know, am I productive when I’m working from home? Because I’ve designed a lecture? Or am I productive at home? Because I’ve had some really good thoughts about, you know, my thesis or whatever, it’s really difficult. So I think in a parliament, we’d like to show people the evidence, but actually, we all know how this cognitive bias stuff works.

Gemma Dale 24:00
You know, if it’s if the evidence that we see supports our viewpoints, then we like it, and if it doesn’t, we find a way to reject it. I think there is some power in looking not just at sort of bigger surveys and you know, what’s been said by you know, an organization or a management consultancy firm, but starting to understand your own productivity and at an organizational level, where you are able to do that, but I think there is no silver bullet to this, it is just chipping away. It is chipping away at it. It is experimentation, it is learning as we go, and it is simply chipping away at those beliefs and, and over time, hopefully exposing them for what they are. And that is it’s a myth. I mean, I’ve been working in HR for many, many years, and we’ve probably can all remember this can’t wait. Do you remember when we were really worried that if we gave everybody access to the internet in the workplace, the world would come to an end? Nobody would ever do any work ever again. I’m old enough to remember the days when people had smoking breaks built into their contracts. And we worried about that, too, you know, there was what about what if people sort of take that from 15 minutes to 30 There’s always a thing. And we’ve always had this fear around whether people are doing enough. And whether they, you know, we’re getting enough out of them for the wages that we pay them. So the truth is, it’s not going away anytime soon. So we have to find a way of working with it and progressing the agenda.

Mervyn Dinnen 25:36
Gemma, I don’t have much to add to that. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and let people know where they can find you.

Gemma Dale 25:47
Well, best place is usually Twitter where I’m at HR underscore, Gemma.

Mervyn Dinnen 25:52
Okay, hopefully you’ll get a lot of new followers now. And listen is great and I look forward to catch catching up with you again soon. And thank you for your time.

Gemma Dale 26:01

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