Onboarding in the Flexible Working Environment

I read an interesting post recently, by James Dellow, about the relationship of our physical work environments and our work habits. He points out that the availability of wifi has enabled the concept of activity based working (ABW). This is where an organisation provides no permanent desks for employees, but rather allows people to sit in project-based groups. The work environment is far more fluid and some organisations even provide fewer desks than staff, encouraging them to work from home. On the surface, that sounds pretty great. The business saves money, and the employees have the freedoms and flexibility they’ve been wishing for.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend, who recently began working for one of these modern, enlightened organisations. As a new employee, this kind of flexibility is a major attraction, but he’s identified drawbacks. Several weeks in, he’s finding that other project members are frequently working from home and from other locations within the building, and rarely coming together to work as a group. Even with an intranet and internal social tool, there’s still a kind of disconnect. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, especially if the work is getting done. But it gets to be a bit of a lonely existence.

Where you see this disconnect really playing out, though, is through the new starter phase—the onboarding. Often as new starters, we don’t like to ask what we perceive to be “silly questions”. So, instead, we watch and learn. We see our team mates use their access card at the cafeteria, or we go with them to the vending machines, or get introduced to other staff members. If we’re all working flexible schedules in unadvertised locations, we don’t have that cubicle buddy to emulate. We can’t learn through observation in isolation.

I ruminated on this issue for a week when I struck gold in my twitter stream. Michael Nieves linked to a fantastic document from Valve—the software company that created the game platform, Steam. Valve have created the document as a way of helping new employees “not to freak out” now that they’re in a non-traditional working environment. It explains guiding principles, the hows and whys, the flat structure and empowerment of individual decision-making. It explains what to expect as a new employee and complements an intranet that provides details of minutiae, such as health plans and technical how-tos.

A terrific handbook like this one and a worthwhile induction, are great ways to make that onboarding process easier. But let’s not run away from human contact in the workplace, altogether. Group chat tools are great for planning and testing our work, but provide the means and opportunity for project members to celebrate milestones together, in person, along the way.

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