Why technology only gets us halfway to flexible work

Recently a client called me to say that the emails she was sending had bounced back. We tried a couple of times but still nothing came through and I wondered out loud how I would get the documents. We laughed as she said that she might have to fax them.

Digital technology is changing the world—and we’re only on the cusp of the digital revolution as we gear up for consumer versions of Google Glass, driverless cars and 3D printing. It’s meant that how we work and live has completely changed particularly with regards to location. Now, thanks to a combination of email, phone and the cloud we can work from anywhere at any time—a phenomenon that comes with a whole host of issues including the fact that it can now be difficult to switch off from work.

On the whole I’m a huge fan of new technologies and see them as underpinning and enabling workplace/lifestyle flexibility. It is no longer so important to be in the office; in fact as companies seek to cut property costs it’s become almost desirable for more employees to work from home.

However despite its enabling disposition, I think that technology is only part of the story when it comes to flexible working. Consider the below story about going back to work from a woman who is a member of the ProfessionalMums network:

“I was working four days a week and really enjoying my work.  I wanted to be able to continue to take on big matters whilst working flexibly after my maternity leave so I asked if I could work from home 4 days a week. I was going to employ an au pair and set up video conferencing, chat and document sharing programs so, for all intents and purposes, it would be as if I was working in the office. I would still have attended meetings in person where necessary but my default position would be at home. In my view, it was a win-win situation as the firm was also going to be able to use my skills and experience to the full extent.  About a month before it was to start the firm pulled out and the reason given was that I wouldn’t be there in my role to nurture juniors. They were just out of their comfort zone.  Now I have another, far less challenging role in the firm which allows me to work from home two days a week.”

The technology is there to enable flexibility, but workplace culture has not necessarily kept pace. I think that managers in particular struggle with the new style of management it requires and so fall back on established working styles.

However, I don’t think that the changes that technology is bringing can be resisted forever. It’s just a question of which organisations are early adopters—and gain first mover advantage—and which watch from the back as the best talent moves to firms that have embraced new ways of working.

If you want to ask for flexible working conditions my advice is to:

Be prepared to make the case. There’s a lot of research around increased productivity from at home workers, use it to back up your request.
Be prepared to invest in your own technology. As in the example above you might have to invest in a good at-home set up for it to work. It’s commonly cited that individuals now often have better technology than what is supplied at work.
According to a recent report the optimum situation is where people work at home 1-2 days a week, which allows enough time for collaboration and innovation at the office.
Kate Mills is the founder and CEO of ProfessionalMums.net, online community focused on finding flexible work opportunities for lawyers, accountants, engineers, IT and management consultants