Not cut out for going it alone

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The Independent Culture
Flexible working and portfolio careers may be buzzwords on every management guru's lips, but at John Lewis Partnership, one of the country's most successful businesses, they have other ideas. Roger Trapp finds out why.

To young graduates just entering the workforce, the less conventional, more flexible forms of working being advocated by a host of consultants and academics can look much more enticing than the rather dull, job-for- life approach experienced by their parents. After all, it is far more uplifting to think of yourself as a supplier of services than as a mere cog in the corporate wheel.

And, especially to those who have already had a taste of work, swapping the trials and tribulations of the conventional working life for a desk, computer and telephone in a bedroom has obvious appeal: no more battling to depressing offices on packed and unreliable commuter trains, no more hours wasted in meetings, no more rushing home in the hope of seeing children before they head for bed. But is it really the way to go?

Stuart Hampson, chairman of the department stores group John Lewis Partnership, certainly does not think so. In a speech under the title "I like being an employee" last week, he cast doubt on the idea that the predicted shift to portfolio careers was a recipe for either commercial success or social harmony. And, since the John Lewis group, along with Marks & Spencer, which is also noted for its employee relations, is a consistently high performer, what he says is worth bearing in mind.

Of course, the obvious reason for putting up with long hours bracketed by lengthy and uncomfortable commutes is financial. Even at a time when a variety of working arrangements are becoming the norm and we are frequently told that no job is for life, families - not to mention bank managers and mortgage companies - prefer the security of a monthly salary cheque to the uncertainties of freelance income (see panel). As one long-term BBC employee said recently in response to the growing drive for independent producers, if your partner is already self-employed there is a certain attraction in remaining on the payroll.

But there are other reasons, too. First, though champions of the new ways of working, such as the management guru Charles Handy, paint a rosy picture of the life, the truth is that we cannot all join them. This is partly because, while increasing numbers of us are supposedly "knowledge workers" in that we use our brains rather than our hands, not all of us have mental skills that are so unusual that they command a premium on the external market.

Author Anthony Sampson, in his book on the decline of corporate life - Company Man, says that "many entrepreneurial loners and consultants can work profitably and effectively from home, electronically linked with their offices. Highly motivated salesmen can revel in the gadgetry which keeps them constantly in touch and instantly available as they drive between their clients." But he points out that "the average executive who makes the transition to home-working can face a deep psychological shock", at least in part because many of the companies shedding people in this way had previously adopted a paternalistic role in which employees were encouraged to see the company and the people they worked with as family, while at home the traditional nuclear family had become a thing of the past through wives going out to work and children off to daycentres.

As Mr Hampson says, "most employees are looking for more than just a job". He stresses that rather than just supply a service or a commodity, they want to "identify with the value of their work".

An additional reason why we cannot all go it alone is because, frankly, not all of us are cut out for it. Faced with having to juggle working for a variety of bosses, many of us would rapidly fall apart in a jumble of double bookings, missed appointments and repeated all-night sessions reminiscent of college essay crises. A survey carried out by a local authority that was considering introducing working from home found a great variance in enthusiasm for it among staff. Some wanted to work from home all the time, others wanted a mixture, others liked being in the office.

Nor is it just the individuals that lose out. Mr Hampson points out that a company employing somebody on a year's contract does not get 12 months' work - the worker spends the last few weeks seeking a new position. Equally, people employed in such a way are unlikely to be committed and so are a risk in terms of walking away with company secrets.

Then there is the social side. Even if we can manage the logistics of it all, there is the risk of boredom. Stuck in a noisy open-plan office, that bedroom looks an attractive prospect. But consultants in this field report increasing numbers of people pining for the hustle and bustle of the offices they have left. Indeed, loneliness is regarded as one of the factors behind the slower-than-expected growth in telecommuting. Moreover, research by academics from Sussex University found that women who became teleworkers to avoid lengthy commutes often fell prey to the strains afflicting conventional office workers - juggling the demands of work and a family that was in the next room.

So, does all this mean that those of us unwilling to risk penury or cabin sickness just have to knuckle under and accept that working means ever- increasing hours away from home? Most emphatically not, says Liz Bargh, UK chief executive of Work Family Directions (WfD), a US-based consultancy specialising in helping employers and employees deal with the dual demands of work and home. "I think flexibility is the answer."

She believes that, although large companies are continuing to shed jobs through restructurings, demographic changes are making people with certain skills in shorter supply. Because of this, employers are increasingly willing to be flexible about working arrangements in order to retain key staff.

Ms Bargh is familiar with making the business case for desirable workplace policies from her days as director of Opportunity 2000, the organisation set up to promote women in the workforce. She sees great benefits to organisations from adopting flexible practices rather than forcing people to choose between normal working hours and opting out. Employees accommodated in this way are more likely to be motivated and loyal to the organisation, she says. Indeed, they may be prompted to make ever greater efforts out of a sort of guilt at having special arrangements.

In the year that WfD has been operating in the UK, Ms Bargh has seen increasing numbers of organisations expressing interest in moving away from what she calls the "rigid" ways of working. Women making their way towards the top of organisations must be a factor in this. At Sanders & Sidney, the outplacement specialists, for instance, managing director Frances Cook makes it clear that she is sometimes leaving for reasons connected with her family and expects her colleagues to do the same.

But Ms Bargh is the first to acknowledge that there are management issues associated with such a change. Accepting that it is easier to manage people "sitting in front of you", she says managers need to be coached and encouraged to measure people by outcomes rather than inputs and so to see their role as helping them to achieve goals rather than making sure they are at their desks or tools for the required number of hours. After all, time spent at work is not necessarily all effective, as recent research indicating the amount of time wasted on e-mail and the like shows.

And, while the US arm of the accountancy and management consultancy firm Deloitte & Touche is a client of the organisation, largely out of a desire to get more women into the partnership, she does regard professional firms as having difficulties in this area because of the perception that their staff must be constantly available to clients.

Nevertheless, there are signs of change. Teresa Graham, the partner in charge of staff at medium-sized accountancy firm Baker Tilly, has made it clear that she is prepared to make deals with people - chiefly women - who are finding it difficult to combine their careers with having children, looking after elderly parents or whatever. Arrangements range from shorter working weeks to career breaks, and are generally welcomed by her male colleagues if they avoid losing valuable employees, she says.

"The recognition is there," says Ms Bargh, pointing out that young men as well as women are showing great interest in finding new ways of working. What it needs is increasing acceptance of the view put forward by a partner in a leading City firm, who defended his practice of using modern technology to work from home: "Work is an activity, not a place."