The cost of flexible working

by Alex Evans, Programme Director of The Supper Club

Remote and flexible working models are helping SMEs to scale, but they are also creating new leadership challenges

What skills do you need to manage an increasingly remote workforce? And how do you develop the future leaders and successors of your business if your managers work like freelance consultants?

These and related questions are being debated more often by members of The Supper Club as they increasingly adopt remote working and deal with more requests for flexible working. While some are concerned that remote workers will be less engaged, and loyal, others have found that it boosts retention.

“As a London-based business we’re viewing remote as a positive means to keep people with the business longer-term,” says Chris Blackburn, founder of Madetech, who now supports 15% of his workforce as fully remote. “If people reach a stage of their life where they want to live somewhere that isn’t London, reduce their commute time and get that family life balance in, it provides a path to progression that means we can better accommodate those life decisions.”

“We see remote collaboration tools such as Slack, Google Hangouts, and even Trello helping to make communication between groups and individuals much easier, allowing a lot of the formerly face-to-face forums such as manager 121s and project planning sessions to work remotely.”

Remote working is also helping scaleups to access the talent they need to grow.

“Thanks to technology, location is now far less relevant and effective teamwork is perfectly achievable without all being in the same room,” says Neil Hollands, founder of Concert Networks. “This approach saves time and miles travelled, making our business more productive. It also enables us to recruit and retain people from further afield and has allowed our MD to work from home more often, enabling our Sales Director to ‘step up’ as a more visible leader within the business.”

Tamara Littleton founded The Social Element in 2002 with a distributed workforce model and pioneered the use of collaboration tools to build her business. She now has a team of 130 staff and 170 freelancers with a head office in London and US offices in LA and New York. As it’s grown, she’s had to manage the leadership challenges of a remote worker model sooner than most.

“I was always clear about creating a corporate structure from day one, even though there were only a few of us doing all the work,” she explains. “It’s vital to get into the mindset of building the right structure but not being afraid to change it either. We’ve recently adapted our structure again to make it more client centric and we’ve invested in commercial training to help the Account Management teams be focused on supporting clients and allowing us to grow with them. The Exec team is very focused on marketing and sales and as you can imagine we use social media a lot in our growth strategy.”

Tamara has invested in her own leadership development to manage the growth of her business, using a combination of tools, training, and peer learning.

“I’m focused on the future growth of my agency and I’m passionate about articulating our future vision and ensuring that everyone feels part of the that vision. We’re big fans of DISC at The Social Element, for those familiar with this leadership and management tool. I’m a Si which means I’m focused on support and collaboration with a large dose of enthusiasm and optimism. Business coaches and mentors have helped me along the way and The Supper Club has been a major influence on my leadership skills.”

As part of its Foresight series of events looking at what’s on the horizon for scaling businesses, and how they should prepare, The Supper Club hosted a summit on The Future Workforce – with a speaker panel exploring the impact of AI and automation as well as flexible and remote working.

Andrea Marston, Talent Acquisition Director for EMEA at Workday, predicted that as, flexible working becomes the norm, both employees and employers will need to adjust.  

“The ability to adapt is prized over actual experience in a VUCA world (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity),” she said, commenting on the future talent needs of employers. “The ability to learn and pivot becomes more important when the only constant is change.”

Commenting on the skills and competences required to lead this talent, and an increasingly remote workforce, Andrea said ‘managers with high EQ are required to manage teams that they rarely see, to become more like coaches to help them find purpose in their jobs and further their career progression’.

The panel also predict that, just as technology has enabled remote working, employers will become more reliant on it for deeper insight into their workers, and to track goals to better lead and develop their future leaders.