Albert Molderink studied technical computer science at the UT and currently still spends one day a week working here as lecturer. The rest of the time he works for the spin-off Ipsum Energy, where he enjoys working on the interface between computer science and electrical engineering. Within these two completely different organizations, Albert has been confronted with the emerging ‘Smart Working’ (SW) from close quarters.
How do you define ‘Smart Working’?
There are of course several ways in which Smart Working can be explained. I tend to regard it as being allowed a certain degree of freedom and flexibility in my daily activities. This is freedom that I and my colleagues are given within Ipsum Energy. For instance, no-one bats an eyelid if I avoid going to work during the rush hour or if I spend a day working at home now and again. SW is also apparent from our contact with external parties such as suppliers. In the past I spent as much as 8 hours in the car getting to a meeting with a supplier in Belgium, while daily contact now takes place via Skype and other new media. Nowadays we only actually meet up once a month, while this used to be almost once a week.
Doesn't this take its toll on personal contact?
Yes, of course, which is why it is important to find the right balance. Monthly meetings with a supplier are particularly important during an intensive development phase. Discussions via media such as Skype are not as personal, while these are the conversations that really do contribute to a good business relationship. In practice I do appreciate the necessity of getting together in person now and again. For instance, in the past we sometimes had no personal contact with the Belgian supplier I mentioned for more than 6 weeks. Although the amount of communication had not diminished, it turned out that the quality of our communication was rapidly going downhill. This is because human contact with colleagues and fellow professionals is essential for productive collaboration. In fact, the lack of personal contact is also an important disadvantage of working from home.
Nevertheless, many organizations do encourage working from home.
Working from home certainly does have enormous advantages and it is encouraged within many organizations that have implemented SW. In my opinion, however, responsibility for its overall coordination should remain in the hands of the employer. This avoids several colleagues choosing to work from home on the same days. It is sometimes important that all staff are at the office in order to discuss work progress in particular, but even informal conversations during coffee breaks can be valuable. Furthermore, whether working from home will prove advantageous depends on the specific activities being carried out. In my field, for example, it is easy to assess my results, so working from home is a realistic option. Working from home also has certain advantages for the employer. For instance, if an employee spends an hour travelling to work, then his working day will be less tiring when he is allowed to work from home. This is why I think it is good for management to encourage staff-members to work from home now and again.
But does a less tiring working day also result in increased production?
Obviously, this will differ per person. Personally, at home I can concentrate better because I spend less time talking to colleagues which means I have fewer distractions. On the other hand, there is the temptation to carry out small household jobs in between. For me, though, in the end there is definitely a positive balance. Particularly if I have a deadline, or I have to do something that demands a high level of concentration, I see that I am more productive when I work from home.
This may not apply to everyone, however.
In order to work successfully from home, not only do you need self-discipline, but also the home situation must be amendable. Colleagues who have children will actually have more distractions at home than at the office. This is one of the reasons why some companies are still hesitant about allowing staff to work from home. For instance, I once applied for a job with a large company and I has told that only staff without children were allowed to work from home. It is important to have a quiet location at home, because there will always be temptations. Remember, for example, the well-known Cup-a-Soup advert about working from home, in which the leading character just phones in to his work every now and again, while spending the rest of the day redecorating his home. This is slightly exaggerated, of course, but the advert does reveal the hidden dangers of SW. This is partly why working from home has been temporarily put on a back-burner within our department at the UT, as productivity was clearly suffering as a result.
Is there a future for SW, despite these obstacles?
Yes, of that I am certain. SW offers freedom, flexibility and, in the right circumstances, increased productivity. For these advantages alone SW should be a part of every modern organization. Having some staff working from home is also ideal with a view to the increasingly limited amount of office space. A growing number of companies therefore regard SW as the norm. Workstations are being replaced by flexspaces and nowadays it is regarded as completely normal to spend a day working from home every now and again. I, for one, am extremely pleased with the introduction of SW. Nevertheless, meticulous coordination by the employer is crucial for safeguarding contact and relationships with colleagues.