Olivia McEvoy of EY is smiling into the camera in an office and wearing a blue blazer with a white top.
Olivia McEvoy. Image: EY

‘Many traditionally office-based roles can be done as effectively remotely’

10 Mar 2020

Olivia McEvoy, director of diversity and inclusion advisory at EY, discusses the key aspects of smart working.

Olivia McEvoy is director of diversity and inclusion advisory services at EY. Central to her job is helping organisations to cultivate a working culture in which people “are valued, feel valued and are able to achieve and contribute their full potential”.

Here, McEvoy discusses the benefits that come from creating an inclusive work atmosphere, and why communications will be critical in that.

‘The cornerstone of smart working is flexibility, which looks different for everyone’

How will communications feature in the future of workplace culture and employee wellbeing?

There is no doubt that educative and well-timed communications are central to workplace culture and wellbeing, with clear and personalised communications being especially key. However, employers are becoming more conscious of burnout and the impact that overwork can have on employees’ mental and physical health.

I think we can expect out-of-hours communication to lessen in the future, as the importance of powering down and disconnecting from work becomes more recognised. However, out-of-hours communications also enable working in a more flexible way – because of caring or other responsibilities – to log back in later in the evening to catch up.

Something as simple as the email footer we use in EY can help to strike the balance: ‘At EY, we work flexibly, so while it may suit me to email you now, I do not expect a response if it is outside your working hours.’

But we also need to remember that workplace culture is a form of communication in itself. It’s often unspoken but it silently indicates ‘the way we do things here’.

Will the future of communications help shape culture in specific ways?

As the nature of work continues to evolve, leaders will need to continually innovate in how they connect with their people. Future communication models and strategies will need to find virtual means of connecting with employees and teams, rather than relying on face-to-face interactions and weekly meetings.

While face-to-face communication will certainly have a role to play in building strong, inclusive cultures within organisations, it’s important that organisations don’t overlook the day-to-day communication with and between team members.

Communication will become less standardised and more bespoke to the needs, structures and locations of specific teams, already evident in global organisations with teams located all around the world. The key to success is creating an environment, be that virtual or physical, that facilitates two-way conversation with an emphasis on creating space for people to have their voices heard and valued. Many organisations say that they welcome and indeed actively seek greater thought diversity but often the culture of challenge does not exist in the organisation to benefit from that diverse thinking.

Leaders may not always have a physical meeting to fall back on, so verbal and non-verbal behaviours whether on calls, via email or on video calls will become more important. In some respects, the medium becomes less relevant in favour of an emphasis on making sure team members feel valued and are given the sufficient support and leadership, whether you’re sitting beside them at a desk or with team members logged on to a video conference from various locations.

What communications technologies do you foresee having a particular impact?

Video conferencing continues to grow in popularity, as do online workflow management tools. However, AR and VR [augmented and virtual reality] have huge potential and applicability for team collaboration when members are working from different locations.

Imagine sitting at your desk with a VR headset in a virtual boardroom or workshop space with team members all over the world. The technology is there, and I think we can expect to see scenarios like this sooner rather than later.

What challenges will workplaces need to navigate?

As organisations and working culture evolve, so does the need to enable, engage and reward people in innovative new ways. Increasingly, human resources are becoming the ultimate resource.

However, organisations need to employ their people more efficiently and keep them engaged and inspired to do their best work. We’re in a transformative age that requires new thinking and new ways of doing things, and organisations need to acknowledge that.

Your bio mentioned the term ‘smart working’ – what does that mean?

Smart working is a set of practices that add greater flexibility to work methods through innovative solutions. Flexible location, schedule, hours worked and shared responsibility are some of the markers of smart working.

Smart working provides employees with the tools, culture and leadership, workspaces and technology to help them choose when, where and how they do their jobs. Employees who feel in control of the variables in their working world are likely to have a heightened commitment to enhancing company results.

Smarter working contributes to a better work-life balance, can improve staff satisfaction and retention and, ultimately, can deliver value for money for organisations.

Is smart working the same as remote working?

Remote working can be part of a smart working solution. However, smart working is much broader than simply working from home, which is a common misconception. The essence of smart working is that it enables employees to work in a manner that fits with their own lives, which will look different for everyone.

Yes, remote working is one element, but smart working can include flexibility around start and finish times, working compressed hours as well as flexibility to work in a less traditional manner – for example, having a couple of hours free in the middle of the day and working until later in the evening might be hugely beneficial for some people.

Smart working also includes reduced hours or more formal arrangements like job-sharing. In a nutshell, smart working means using the technology and tools available to get the work done in a way that suits the lifestyle and circumstances of the employee.

What are your tips for getting to grips with smart working?

The cornerstone of smart working is flexibility, which looks different for everyone. There’s no one-size-fits-all, so implementing a strict smart working policy goes against the objective of what it is designed to achieve.

A first step for employers is to understand the flexibility needs of their employees and to facilitate conversations that give employees permission to articulate their requirements. Employers need to challenge themselves as well around what is and isn’t feasible; it has to work for the business as well as the employee.

There are definitely instances where remote working fundamentally won’t work all the time in specific roles, where they need to use systems or hardware that are physically located in the office or where the employee is in a manual role, for example. However, many traditionally office-based roles can be done as effectively remotely as they can in the office.

Critically, availing of smart working conditions cannot impact on promotion and reward – employees need to see and experience smart working as a positive rather than a negative impact on their career prospects. Role modelling or leading by example, particularly by senior leaders, is key to success.

For employees, my advice is simple – make sure you understand your smart working entitlements and don’t be afraid to challenge back where you encounter obstacles. Be realistic and reasonable with your requirements with regard to your specific role. Could you do your role just as effectively in a smart manner? The key to success for smart working is trust between the employer and employee, so it’s vital that trust isn’t compromised on either side.

Lastly, for both parties, the most important element for smart working is that it is ‘reason neutral’ – it can’t be confined to one cohort or population type and it can’t just be for those who have caring responsibilities – it needs to be equally available to everyone. Indeed, until it changes for everyone, it won’t actually change in a meaningful way for anyone.

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