Guest blog: Smarter working and Work Wise Week: a topic worthy of a proper conversation - and Bristol Business School is in!

By Dr Harriet Shortt, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies, Bristol Business School, University of the South West of England.

David Lennan kicked off Work Wise Week by encouraging us all to have a proper discussion about how we work and what we achieve. His call to action advises that now is the time to really think about our working practices and to consider how and where people work.

And I say ‘hear, hear!’. Smarter working should be a topic of conversation in every organisation – whatever the size or industry – and this particularly interests me, given my research in organisation studies and work space.

Where we work is changing – in fact, as I write this blog I am sat at Bristol airport in the UK waiting for my flight to Crete – I’m off to present at the 12th Organization Studies Summer Workshop. As I work, I am surrounded by other people on their laptops, phones and other devices. We are mobile and we are connected, and more and more of us are working at home, in the car, on the train, and at the airport. Increasingly the notion of a ‘9am to 5pm’ in the office is being questioned and alternative ways of working are being adopted.

But this ability to work anywhere (and arguably, anytime) is something that warrants more thought and consideration by organisations. It’s not just a case of whether you can work from home, or whether you can reply to emails on the move. A conversation about smarter working in the workplace should not be a cursory nod to not going into the office 5 days a week, nor should it be about paying lip service to flexible working practices. What we need to think about more is how this fluidity and mobility in our working lives impacts on lots of other things. Organisations need to be responsible and thoughtful about the human side of smarter working and how it works in practice; how can workers feel more connected with colleagues when they work virtually? what are the challenges workers face when they work from home – like loneliness - and what can, or rather should, organisations do to support this? how do workers manage work and life boundaries when the physical and socio-cultural boundaries of work and life are so blurry? what about the seemingly prevailing issue of trust – still organisations that I work with have deeply embedded cultures of presentism, despite having flexible contracts and home-working agreements with employees; there is still a sense of ‘if I can’t see you, are you really working?’ – and this is a challenge, both for workers and leadership teams.

We might also want to prepare for the future of smarter working; are leadership teams now thinking of the workforce of the future? what do the Millennials and current graduates think of smarter working? will they even call it smarter working? what aspects of smarter working practices do they want or even expect to see in an employer? with the increasing number of young entrepreneurs and others ditching ‘traditional’ employment in favour of running their own businesses, we might ask what do smarter working practices look like or feel like when you work in an SME or when you’re the only one responsible for shaping them?

During Work Wise Week, I have been inspired by the guest blogs I have read because these sorts of questions have been raised and addressed by the contributors. They have talked about how we feel when we miss colleagues in the office, juggling work and life and families and being a parent, and hints and tips for working more flexibly. They have talked about the important initiatives they have started or been part of to help support the wider workforce or those they work directly with. And they have talked about the wider social, cultural and environmental benefits of smarter working.

So, Work Wise Week has, in my view, achieved what it sets out to do - provoke thought, shine a light on best practice, and hear from those who know.

David Lennan also noted in his blog last Sunday that as we move further into the 21st Century more still needs to be done and further conversations need to be had on this topic. We need to make sure that the momentum continues and that UK organisations not only embrace smarter working practices but move and flex with the wider social, cultural, political, legal, environmental and technological changes now and ahead. David talked about the Work Wise UK Mark of Excellence that organisations can achieve in order that they are recognised in these areas – that they are recognised as forward thinking, industry leading, and as employers of choice

As such, I’m proud to say that we, Bristol Business School, at the University of the West of England are entering a new collaborative partnership with Work Wise UK – our core aim is to build on the fantastic Mark of Excellence that Work Wise UK and other strategic partners developed 10 years ago but enhance it, and produce an even more refined set of Standards that suit working practices in the 21st Century.

This will include support from our brand-new Bristol Business Engagement Centre – located in our brand-new Business and Law School building (a £55m state of the art facility for research, teaching and learning, in the heart of our Frenchay Campus). The Engagement Centre aims to collaborate with local, regional and national organisations on a wide range of business and management projects, with our world-leading academics providing advice, expertise and experience that can support and develop the future of work.

Our partnership with Work Wise UK includes academic staff including me, Dr Harriet Shortt, and Dr Helen Mortimore -  who heads up the Human Resource, Work and Employment Research Group in the Business School. It includes our students too. As I mentioned above, if we really want to think about the future of work, we need to have proper conversations with those who will BE the future of work. So, as part of our Mark of Excellence project we will be inviting Business, Management, Leadership, Enterprise and Entrepreneurship students to be involved with the development of the Standards. In addition, we’ll be inviting a fresh perspective from an exciting and dynamic organisation – YENA – Young Entrepreneur Networking Association – headed up by its founder Ash Phillips – who work with young entrepreneurs, leaders and professionals on a national scale.

We are looking forward to kicking off the Mark of Excellence project this summer, at Bristol Business School, with Work Wise UK’s Chairman David Lennan and CEO Phil Flaxton, several of their public and private sector collaborators, our researchers, our students, YENA, and 3 of our regional public and private sector business partners. There, we will sit around the table and have a proper conversation about smarter working and the future of work. We will develop a set of Standards that any organisation – large or small – will be proud to own and will enable them to attract and retain the best people and genuinely employ the best working practices.