Sunday, 08 April 2018 15:24

When flexible working does not work

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A contentious title? Some people may disagree with my thoughts here - let’s see if we can generate a good debate.

A lot of commentators bemoan the lack of flexible working in many organisations. Most of us, at least some of the time, want a degree of flexible working. By “flexible working” I mean the freedom to choose where and when to work. This covers a spectrum from the odd Friday worked at home, through to those modern global citizens who base themselves in some desirable beach location and in between bouts of surfing work as and when they want.


Many organisations have been slow on the uptake – whether this is because being 9-5 in the office is just a cultural norm, or because there is a lack of trust of remote employees. As anyone who has been involved in cultural change knows, it’s a slow process, so it should not surprise that firms have been unhurried in adopting flexible working. Nevertheless, employees are right to chide their employers for the slow uptake. In a competitive employment market, where flexibility is desired and valued, it’s short sighted not to offer it. In addition, there is evidence that people who have flexibility can be more productive.

But before we get carried away and imagine a world in which everyone works flexibly, where and when they want and are paid by output and not for hours worked – let’s look at one specific area where flexible working really is a problem. This is when you need to work as part of a team.

To be a team or not a team?

Let’s start with an analogy. Think of two marathon runners. Does anyone seriously care that they practice at different times in different locations? Of course not. They can be as flexible as they like – different times, different locations. Now think of a football team. It seems obvious when we think of such a team that they have to play together at the same time, and in the same place. That’s the whole point of them being a team.

When I think of my own work it falls pretty much into these two camps. When I am writing or developing a seminar, I work all over the place and at fairly odd times of the day. It bothers no-one and it pleases me. But when I am working with project teams, I need to work at the same time as that team. And for all the improvements in communication and collaboration tools, most of the time I need to be physically co-located. It’s still just makes it easier and better.

The word “team” is overused in business. Much of the time, many of us are not really working as part of a team. We have individual work. In a large organisation we may be labelled as part of a team. We may be doing similar work as our colleagues and share the same boss, but if we can get on, heads down and do our work by ourselves then I don’t think we are a team, at least not when we are working this way. This just makes us part of a group in the organisation with some degree of shared interests. Here flexible working is appropriate.

For me, a team is a group who share some common work and who interact on an ongoing basis. Take a good project team – or better still a scrum team. Often in these situations there is constant collaboration between the members of the team. The collaboration is not a by-product or necessary evil – it is the work. In fact, when there is not a constant communication the productivity slows right down. Bad news I’m afraid for lovers of flexible working, (including myself). Here it is perfectly reasonable to question the value of flexible working.

We’ve all been in those awful meetings when someone asks about progress and the conversation goes along the lines: “well I can’t do that because Fred does not work Friday’s, this will have to wait because Mary works Tuesdays at home, and Geoff is now on holiday for 3 weeks”.

In these situations, the timelines to get something done are not driven by how long the work takes, but by the logistics of being able to coordinate the interactions between people. I’m sure everyone has seen that irritating situation when a 1 hour task is delayed by weeks simply because of the inability to get a few people into the same room to discuss it. Flexible working is not a help to a truly collaborative team, it’s a hindrance. 

Flexibly applied flexibility

So, let’s praise and bring on the flexible working when it’s appropriate. Let’s agree that in many situations we could do it a lot more. But let’s not pretend then that flexible working comes at zero cost in all situations.

(But by the way, if you are part of a team and you need to be in the same location at the same time, I’m not suggesting this needs to be 9-5 in an anonymous office block. By all means work together at midnight on Copacabana beach, if that’s what works for you and your team).

I’m interested in your views. Let me know if you agree or vehemently disagree!

Read 412 times Last modified on Sunday, 08 April 2018 15:29
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at Information about his company can be found at His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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