Henley Future Work Forum ten years on
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Teleworker, 2002
Up beside the quiet waters of the Thames at Henley, theyve been taking stock this Autumn (2002) of the way telework has developed over the past ten years. Henley Management Colleges innovative Future Work Forum, an informal discussion grouping primarily geared to the needs (and budgets) of larger employers, has been celebrating its tenth birthday this year with a series of events reassessing recent developments, as well as announcing its choice for the award of most innovative firm in Britain.
Peter Thomson, the Forums director and one of its founding members, has been there since the very first Forum meeting, at a time when at least if you believed some of the hype telework was all set to revolutionise the whole country. His own background, as the UKs Human Resources director for the then-IT giant Digital, had given him an interest in issues of organisational development and the ways in which companies, managers and individual workers could cope with the cultural changes needed to work remotely. What was needed, he decided, was a club for employers, to bring together like-minded advocates of new ways of working. Henley Management College, keen to avoid the charge that business schools were remote from the real world, was only too happy to endorse the idea. The Forum was born.
"One of the benefits of belonging to the Forum is that people who are championing new forms of work organisations can often feel a bit of a lone voice in their organisation. Theres a difficulty in persuading their colleagues," Peter says. "Id seen it in Digital, which generally had a liberal management culture. In organisations more hierarchical, managers feel even more uncomfortable at letting go."
Over the past ten years, the Forums members originally from IT and telecoms companies but increasingly in recent years from sectors such as banking, insurance and the legal profession - have met together for seminars, discussions and visits. During that time, the technology has certainly changed radically. As Peter points out, ten years ago nobody had heard of the World Wide Web and the early email systems suffered enormous problems of incompatibility.
But, as Peter himself accepts, the speed of technological change has not been matched when it comes to the introduction of new ways of working. "In the early days I think we underestimated the social element of work, and the isolation of working full-time from home," he says. "There are quite sexy tools to facilitate teamworking and collaborative working, but they are still no substitute for face-to-face meetings."
Most companies, he feels, are still at the pilot stage when it comes to new working methods, with companies own cultural inertia reinforced by middle managers reluctance to change. "The technology is accelerating at a rate almost too fast for individuals to cope with, and individuals who are trying to change are still working at a rate too fast for organisations to cope with. Theres a double brake on progress," he says.
Or at least this can be the case with larger corporates. Smaller companies may be more fleet of foot, perhaps. Certainly the firm which walked away with the Henley Forums Future Work Award, the PR consultancy Word Association, brings together a small team of marketing specialists who operate primarily from their homes. Word Associations MD Mark Thomas is in no doubt of the advantages which telework has brought his company. "We switched from a traditional office to home working partly to enable me to take a year off from my business," he says. "During the year I travelled in a motorhome throughout Eastern Europe and into North Africa with my wife and children and I was able to keep in touch with the business using my lap top computer and mobile phone to access emails and the internet. When I returned from my travels all my staff enjoyed working at home so much that we decided we didn't need an office base."
Peter Thomson himself has switched from his conventional employment arrangement at Digital to operating from a home-office, combining his work for the Henley Forum with a consultancy business. He argues that the Forum will continue to have a role in its second decade of life, helping companies make the transition to an information-based society. "Are we now in the information age? The answer is yes for technology, and yes for young people, But its no for middle managers, and no for traditional organisations," he says. Theres still as much need as ever, it seems, for champions of change.