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British managers need to learn to trust their staff if the UK is to realise the full potential benefits of mobile and flexible working. This is the message of a newly-published white paper written by Carsten Sorensen, an academic at the London School of Economics, on behalf of Microsoft UK.

Microsoft argues that technology will be a key enabler of changing the way we work. It sees a shift already happening: organisations are becoming less centralised and more distributed, and the infrastructure of a corporation will, increasingly, be something employees carry with them. Technology also means that remote workers can be monitored in a way that would have been impossible in the past.

Sorensen presented his white paper at a press meeting in central London on Tuesday. As well as Senior Microsofters, including UK MD Alistair Baker, representatives from the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) and the TUC (Trade Union Congress) joined Sorensen to discuss the way our work lives are changing.

Sorensen describes how the old classical management hierarchies of the past are being replaced by flatter networked structures. This means that we have greater access to our colleagues, but we are also more exposed ourselves to an influx of communication and information.

This has positive and negative implications for business. One obvious benefit is that staff will be able to work wherever the customer needs them to be. But it also leaves open the possibility of over-management. Sorensen warns that if managers maintain too much control of their remote or flexible workers, the workers will find ways to subvert the monitoring system, rendering it useless.

"Micromanagement causes people to spend a lot of time proving that they are working, instead of getting on with actually working. Everyone knows those flashy people, who are very good at showing off how well they work, but who don't actually do anything. We need to root those people out," he said.

The trick will be setting up a system where the workers see a benefit in being monitored. But that requires trust. "Building the kind of trust between management and workers can take years, and it can be erased in a second," Sorensen notes.

Also sounding a note of caution is Ian Brinkley, chief economist and head of the economic & social affairs department at the Trade Union Congress. He says that the last ten years have seen massive changes, particularly with the way business uses computers. However, much of the promised social and economic benefits have not been delivered.

Staff report lower levels of job satisfaction that 10 years ago, that they have more responsibility but less discretion in how they do their jobs, and a greater level of supervision. He argues that the social contract between a company and its staff has been eroded, and this needs to be addressed.

So against this rather dark background, where does trust come from? The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has some encouraging figures: 90 per cent of employee requests for flexible working are approved, 84 per cent of business offer part-time employment, 11 per cent offer the opportunity to telework. But it is hard to know what to make of figures like these. People are not stupid, and are unlikely to make a request for flexi-time if they know their boss will refuse, and possibly hold it against them, whatever the law demands.

Susan Anderson, director of HR policy at the CBI, is optimistic. "We are building a climate of trust, but we are also in transition," she points out. That is, it won't happen overnight, and we should not expect miracles.

Sorensen concludes that the consequences for British business will be severe, if trust continues to be eroded: "What appears to be an ethical goal, has the most profound implications for the future of the UK's economy," he writes. "The lower productivity of Britain compared to continental Europe already demonstrates the risk." ®

Related link

The white paper, entitled The Future Role of Trust in Work - The Key Success Factor for Mobile Productivity is available to download here.

Related stories

Telework hasn't taken off (D'oh!)
Govt rings in teleworking changes
Europe extends employment rules to teleworkers

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