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Ways of Working: Transformative Potential or Just Another Fad?

WOW! It sounds like a commercial on late night TV. Ways of Working (WOW) promises a big payback and fast, but with low risk and low cost.  Is it just another management fad, or could it really be true?

Everybody is talking about it…

The words ‘New Ways of Working’ are popping up again and again in management meetings.  They are often accompanied by a sad tale of poor collaboration, misalignment. lost time and frustration. 

‘Ways of Working’ may now be part of the management lexicon, but what does it actually mean?  Well, it depends on who you ask. Although the term has popular appeal, there is no single definition.

How people talk about ways of working tends to reflect where the pain and frustration is felt within their own work environment. So the list tends to be quite topical – it is also quite long. But let’s start with those that are most timely in timely as the pandemic recedes into memory.

Top-down hierarchical control and its bureaucratic excesses.  Also, the shift from hierarchy to matrix in response to the need for greater cross-functional collaboration.

Coping with accelerating change and the need for greater speed and agility, flexibility and innovation. I

Breaking down silos and improving alignment between functions, departments and business.

Working in teams. With many executives spending up to than three quarters of their time in internal collaboration, any improvements to the way we work must improve how we collaborate.

A culture of all-pervasive urgency, where people don’t have time to think or to effectively plan-do-review.

The danger of burnout as people seek to cope with the increased levels of pressure. It is about recognizing the link between performance and wellbeing.

For some it is working smart and not just hard! That ranges from reducing low value work to greater alignment and the focus on key priorities and results.

Born out of the Future of Work debate, ways of working emerged as an interesting topic at HRD conferences over the past 5 years. A range of trends were transforming work and would require new ways of working (e.g.  automation and AI, the gig economy and the multigenerational workforce) . Then along came the pandemic and changes (e.g. remote working) that might otherwise have taken decades happened almost overnight.  Ways of working was no longer a conference hot topic, but a top management priority.

Why do Ways of Working matter?

What is the business case for attending to ways of working?  That is a great question – one that each executive must answer for themselves.  To do this we recommend using 4 metrics (what we call the 4 BIG numbers).  These numbers clearly reflect your ways of working.  To affect changes in these numbers requires making adjustments to ways of working.   So, if you want to change levels of performance potential, pressure, vitality or collaboration optimizing the ways of working within a team is key.

Not surprisingly, if there is no single definition of ways of working there is going to be a variety of reasons why people believe that it matter, as well a number of different ways of measuring it. For some people it the primary motivation to address ways of working are:

Business Reasons

  • Greater speed and ability in response to accelerating change
  • More effective internal collaboration especially across functional silos
  • Productivity and efficiency – the ability to get more done

People Reasons

  • Minimizing waste – the time lost in ineffective internal meetings
  • Reducing levels of frustration – to boost motivation – important in developing and retaining talent
  • Getting the balance right – in terms of work-life balance and reducing the risk of burnout

Tips on Ways of Working

The number one message is don’t wait on the organisation to improve your ways of working, start small – start with your work group or team

Apply the 7Rs consistently to your team, using it to play and review work streams, projects and ongoing interactions.

You cannot do it alone.  As so much of our work is collaborative we need to adjust ways of working at a team level for it to be really effective. For example if just one person on a team more carefully plans meetings (e.g. ensuring attendees is kept to a minimum) but all others don’t then the overall impact is likely to be small.

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