HRBPTT – Smart Working: Creating and Embedding the Cultural Shift

These are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest HR Business Partner Think Tank (HRBPTT) held on Thursday 27th June 2013 titled ‘Smart Working: Creating and Embedding the Cultural Shift’.

The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR and Business Partnering professionals from leading national and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.

As the workforce of today becomes more demanding, creating an attractive working environment is essential to prevent losing out on top talent. Offering a smart working scheme can help accomplish this, as well as contributing to improved employee engagement, heightened productivity and positively impacting on the bottom line.

Smart working encompasses agile working, increased autonomy and employee independence; essentially less focus on the process involved in reaching results and more focus on the results themselves. But how can you create the right environment for smart working to be culturally effective?

Initial challenges were highlighted, and questions posed:

  • Is there a real appetite for smart working? Do people want to work from home because they can, rather than just to fit around a dentist appointment?!
  • How can you raise the profile of smart working?
  • How can you educate managers to empower staff, in order to give them the freedom required for smart working?
  • Senior ‘sponsors’ haven’t really been sponsoring! – How can you address this?
  • Would the opportunity for smart working attract better talent to an organisation?
  • How can you measure the effects of smart working?

What IS smart working?

Smart working isn’t just working from home. It is the most effective way of performing and delivering results, by being more receptive and productive.

Smart working is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is a continuum, and can largely depend on the relationship you have with your manager. A lot of managers feel the need to be in control of their employees, so it can be difficult to give that level of autonomy and freedom. Is there trust between you? Is the manager empowered? Are the leadership team on-board and embracing smart working? Leaders have to be behind the idea and encourage the change, otherwise it won’t happen! It is a chain reaction, and therefore it is absolutely key to get buy in from senior sponsors.


Pick your sponsor carefully! They shouldn’t just be a name on a piece of paper; they really need to ‘champion’ smart working and follow it through. They need to have a personal interest, so make sure you pick someone ‘real’ in the business, and someone who has previously been a 9-5 type worker. People need to see it happening in order to buy into it, so it is best to choose someone who isn’t isolated.

Communicating the change

Start with data collection (employee surveys, exit interviews, etc) to make sure that employees want a smart working approach, and use this to create a business case. Get managers on-board, be able to prove that the client group have bought into the change, then take it to the CEO.

Communicating down? Hold a forum for managers to talk them through the benefits of smart working, how it can work in their own teams, and how best to implement it. Establish time frames (start with one day a month, then two days a month, etc.) and ensure that they are seen to be driving it!

Start by running a pilot?

The benefit of running a pilot is that you can get measurements. Take away the ‘old world’ that employees are used to working in and see what the ‘new world’ should look like. For example, could this be a shift in sales-focused targets to customer-focused targets? Convince the employees to take part in the pilot by outlining the benefits and using incentives where necessary.

In order to successfully run a pilot, you need support from leaders and momentum behind it! The difficulty can arise when, if the pilot goes well, you must then introduce it properly!

If you aren’t able to run a pilot, try looking at pockets where the activity is already happening, and compare the difference.

How do you check the impact smart working is having on employees, and how can you evidence return on investment?

  • Employee engagement surveys
  • Performance management (looking at both behaviours and outputs)
  • Absenteeism and retention levels
  • Feedback on employees from their peers and managers; 12 per person, twice a year?

However, data from surveys, etc. is influenced by so many variables that it can be difficult to relate it to just smart working. It can also take a while to get meaningful results!

Employer brand is a useful index to consider. By working closely with the marketing team, forge a link between them and HR, and make use of what they do to sell to the business!

Causal diagrams are also simple to do, but powerful! Use facts and figures where possible to make it visual and easy for employees to understand.

What steps would you take in a more ‘traditional’ business?

Look at the customer needs and invest in leadership training to create and agree a vision based upon this. Look at the internal and external brand – what you deliver to customers must also represent how your employees feel.

Win their hearts by talking about the ‘why’ (the emotional bit!) then talk through the logic and the ‘how’. Start by ensuring the business is clear on why they are introducing smart working (is it office space constraints? Is it employee engagement levels?) and then consider the bigger picture such as behaviours, vision and how people interact. How do you then tie them all together and ensure its part of your EVP?

Consider the company legacy. Is what you currently have, what you want moving forward?

How do you on-board someone in a smart working environment?

Be honest with new starters! If the culture and environment is evolving, explain how you work now and what you are aiming to get to. Joining a new organisation may never be what you expected, but make sure the smart working element is not oversold! (Look at on boarding surveys versus employee engagement/exit interviews to see if the environment was sold accurately).

Should you put the flexible hours in the contracts? This depends on the level of trust in the organisation, and the level of role. If you have core hours when an employee is expected to be reached (either at home or in the office), outline this in the contract, i.e. 9-12, 2-5, OR you need to do 37.5 hours, do them when you will!

Leaders need to embrace it and be convinced by it. Have open honest conversations with new starters, “Personally I enjoy being in the office, and keeping home as home, but I don’t expect you to be here every day. It’s more about the results you are delivering”. Experienced teams will find it difficult to actually change, but new starters won’t know any different!

There is a balance to be had…

Smart working can be isolating, and not everyone will want to take it up. Most of us spend a lot of time at work, and need human interaction!

The general consensus was that younger generations may ‘cope’ better with smart working, due to the increased use of social media and technology. However, most would miss the banter in the office, the team meetings, etc. and so the simple answer to counterbalance that is to come back in!

Make offices exciting. People will want to come in if the environment is fun and vibrant, and most will want to be around their teams! For meetings, make it clear whether it needs to be face to face, via videoconference, etc. Also, create groups that people want to be part of. Even if they have the option to work from home or away from desks, people don’t work from home as much as they thought they would.

Don’t over think it! Smart working will emerge, so allow the culture to develop. Engage the managers, and it will shape itself organically.


  • Trust is key – empower managers, invest in leadership training and get buy in from a senior level to cascade it through the organisation
  • Find a sponsor that has a vested interest in smart working. They have a huge influence over whether or not smart working will work
  • Understand the employees needs, including generational differences. Just because one person buys into it, not everyone will
  • Use marketing teams when thinking about your employer brand, and make sure you live up to your brand promise. If you oversell smart working and it doesn’t take off, it will get out there quickly due to social media and website such as
  • Don’t be too flexible. When working from home, ensure you still have a balance. Don’t work from 7am-10pm
  • Don’t over-complicate or over-process it. Smart working won’t happen overnight, but that’s ok!
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