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Managing a mobile, constantly-connected team

Work culture is shifting for many Canadians. Hours are more flexible. Pyjamas double for work wear on some days. Your smart phone is always within reach, perhaps even as you sleep. Connectivity is everything. If you've recently been designated 'mobile' – anything from working one or two days a week from home to working out of multiple locations – the way you work and interact with your colleagues will radically change your working life.

There are challenges. While technology gives employees more control than ever to fit work in around their busy personal lives, that perfect work/life balance may still be elusive. It's initially liberating to shake off the nine-to-five, but the same technology that allows you to skip the stressful commute and work from home or your kid's soccer game may make you feel like you're never truly free of the office. Despite being constantly contactable and virtually connected, some people may feel isolated from colleagues they only see infrequently and miss the spontaneous collaborations of the office. Plus, co-ordinating with the team can be tricky if you start at dawn and others prefer to work after dinner.

Canada's big banks have been at the forefront of the shift towards mobility in the workplace for years now, so have had a head start at tackling many of the issues.

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"For sure, there's a change in the standard of the work force due to technology," says Per Scott, vice-president of human resources at RBC. "The new approach is to offer much more flexibility while recognizing that some people are more traditional. It's not for all jobs. People have to be enabled to do it and have the technology to take advantage of it."

After successfully moving hundreds of people from a more traditional working configuration to a mobile one, he says that awareness is the key to keeping hyper-connectivity in check.

"It's not sustainable to have those blurred lines where you end up working some or all of seven days a week," says Mr. Scott. "You will burn people out. Some groups may decide to have meeting-less Fridays, or give people permission to turn off the BlackBerry. Or you put in your notes that an answer by Monday is fine, you're not looking for an answer today. The best place to find solutions is within individual teams."

It's also up to leaders to set an example, according to Lynn Roger, senior vice-president of talent strategies and executive resourcing at BMO Financial Group.

"If someone sends me an e-mail on Sunday afternoon, they'd be hard pressed to get an answer," says Ms. Roger. "That sets the tone that this is my family time now. When you don't respond, people get it."

BMO Financial Group has solved the issue of conflicting hours and availability in their mobile environment by drawing up written contracts between managers and employees, so the expectations of when to be in the office are clear. Details are left up to the individual teams. If the manager changes, the agreement survives, although it can be modified by a group consensus.

"That really formalizes things, so it's not just drop in whenever you feel like it," says Michael Thornburrow, senior vice-president, corporate real estate and strategic sourcing for BMO Financial Group. "There's a specified time when people have to come in or call in, so they know. The only thing we track is to make sure that every manager doesn't have their staff meeting on Thursdays or Tuesdays. We space it out so we don't overtax the facilities."

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Ms. Roger says when they change the mobility environment for an employee, they make sure to have consultations before, during and after implementation.

"People get used to their offices, closed doors and a big desk," says Ms. Roger. "Some people worked a long time to get that, so we involve the individuals who will be affected so they have a say."

BMO Financial Group are currently redesigning some of their facilities to accommodate their mobile workers and reduce their corporate real estate. People can reserve a space on the floor for their hours in the office. Individual work stations are smaller than they used to be, and there are more public spaces, meeting rooms and soft seating areas to encourage collaboration.

"It's not cookie cutter," says Mr. Thornburrow. "Groups from two to 25 can get together when they're in the office for those face-to-face meetings, which are still very important. We have a number of concepts in the new space, including a right to light. There are no walls, no corner offices or offices along the windows, so everyone has access to natural light coming in from outside. The whole area feels open, yet there are enclaves where people can go if they need to get some work done on their own."

While BMO doesn't track the productivity or metrics on the output of individuals, they do measure employee satisfaction and engagement. Their human resources department runs an annual employee survey, and Mr. Thornburrow did a survey with his own group five months after they became mobile. The results showed 86 per cent of the 140 people on his staff preferred the new space to the old one, a record high.

"The number one reaction that we got from the team is that it's easier to collaborate when they get together," says Mr. Thornburrow. "And since they're sitting in a different work station each week, it's easier to get to know people."

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The biggest hurdle when it comes to working at home has been the boss, according to Ms. Roger. It's overcoming the old adage of what can't be seen, can't be measured.

"It isn't just a change in location, it actually changes the way you lead people," says Ms. Roger. "It's about measuring outcomes as opposed to physically seeing that person when you walk by their desk in the morning."

While Mr. Scott think it's early in the game for RBC to compare before and after productivity, they're optimistic about it.

"It's a bit of an acknowledgment by the company that face time isn't really the thing that matters." he says. "The more you focus on outcomes, the better your chances are of measuring productivity."

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