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Why trust is key to good work

John Rowan and Partners is banking on flexible working to improve productivity

How does this sound for a working day: Get in at 10 am, go on Facebook for an hour, do a bit of work, have lunch, book a holiday, go to the gym for an hour and leave the office at 5 pm?

For most of us this probably seems more like a Saturday (the work element aside). However, some firms in the industry are moving towards much more flexible ways of working, allowing staff to manage their time themselves, in the hope that they will retain more staff because they are happier and therefore more productive.

The idea is that a manager gives a member of staff a task to do within an agreed time frame. When and how they do it is up to them, as long as they deliver it by a final deadline.

This might seem unlikely to work in an industry with a notorious long-hours culture, but one firm is convinced that it can be successful - among office-based staff, if not on site.

Stephen Gee, managing partner of John Rowan and Partners, a consultant working in central and south-east England, says he went to a lecture which got him thinking.

“We went to some research on work/life balance. After family, which is the main motivator to happiness, work comes second. But it is only second if you think you have control over it. It can make you very unhappy if all you do is come in, do 9-5.30 with someone saying ‘do this, do that’,” he says.

Laid-back style

Mr Gee explains that he is already a relatively relaxed manager so moving to task-based management was natural.

But he admits that it won’t be easy to put into practise. The firm is bringing in a set of policies to give people control over how and when they do something. “That involves a huge amount of trust on both sides and a huge amount of change to the management of the business.” But he feels that his staff are professional enough to make it work.

“You should be able to trust a person, if you say here is a piece of work which we all agree is do-able in two weeks - when and how you do that I don’t care, but I do care that when we sit down it is done to a good standard,” he says. JRP plans to work completely in this way by the autumn.

But how do clients view this type of working? Mr Gee says that it can be difficult to convince them that his staff seconded to their offices will be working like this.

Of the firm’s work at St Pancras he says: “We had seven or eight people working very long hours in the client office on site and in reality it’s quite a challenge to get the client to accept a degree of flexibility.”

Staff have sometimes been given financial compensation by JRP if they have had to work under the client’s rules, but he is keen to be open with the client before this happens.

Staying flexible

He says that it won’t affect the way he works personally, but he won’t be afraid to enforce the policy when he needs to.

“If I see managers being too rigid I will intervene and say we already have a flexible working policy, there’s no reason why you should be getting upset with this person who isn’t here,” he says.

Other firms are also moving towards this approach. Paul McCreath, HR operations manager at HBG, says: “It’s on our agenda to see how we can work more flexibly. We are looking at career breaks for example. It makes staff more engaged.”

But he says that for larger firms, such as his, it can be more difficult. “When the business is complex - there might be site deliveries to manage, or our FM business delivery times are fixed. But we want to be an employer of choice,” he says.

It seems to be working. JRP has moved from 74 to 69 in The Sunday Times Best Small Companies list and HBG has been awarded a first class rating by Best Companies.

But for Mr Gee, jumping up several places is not enough. He wants to see further improvement. He says: “I want to see progress in how people feel they are managed and how happy they are to work. We do passionately believe it will be the right thing for us but the proof will be in the pudding.”

How it will work at John Rowan and Partners

Stephen Gee, managing partner, explains how task-based management will work in his firm.

“I’m mad keen on skiing and to suggest to me that a few weeks before I go I won’t be looking up the snow reports at 10 am is crazy. I know some companies have tried to ban Facebook.

I think you just have to accept that people are going to go on those things and to ban it is very negative, because it’s saying to people you haven’t got control over your life and I can’t trust you.

“If someone decides over the weekend they want to go on holiday, at 10 the next morning when they’re online I’m not going to get upset because until they’ve booked it you probably won’t be very effective anyway.

“Yes we still want people to work 36.5 hours and we expect people to be in every day but they might be able to work some core hours Monday to Wednesday, say, and only 4 hours on a Friday.

“Task-based management will be a complete mindset. Some managers we know will be fine, it’s almost how they are managing now. But there are others who need a lot of training to change how they manage their staff.

But overall we’ll become a much better managed company because it makes managers take control, there will be a lot more one to one meetings with staff for example.”