Stepping into the future

Famous for franking machines, Pitney Bowes decided to use an office move to revolutionise its working culture. Heather Greig-Smith finds that change is an ongoing project.

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When customer communication technology firm Pitney Bowes moved 450 members of staff 20 miles from Harlow to Hatfield, managers estimated they would lose 50% of the workforce. Employees were wedded to their location, many walked or cycled to work and families had been in the company for generations. Moving was not popular but essential, given the cost of the ageing headquarters.

Eighteen months later, only six employees have left because of the move. The company has used its relocation as a catalyst for cultural transformation, embedding flexibility in the business’s DNA. This has softened the blow of upheaval while getting the company – famous for the franking and mail machines that decorate its new offices – ready for the future.

Today, only 60 members of staff work in the office exclusively. “This has changed from only 60 working elsewhere before,” says Liese Lord, HR business partner for Global Mailing Solutions, Europe. Sitting in stylish and light space on Hatfield Business Park, she explains the journey that the company has taken and says it is a constant evolution.

“We wanted to move from presenteeism to trust, enabling people to work how, when and where it suits them. I refuse to write a policy on flexible working – it’s a way of life not a piece of paper,” she says.

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Consultation and persuasion

Lord and her team were tasked with taking as many people as they could from Harlow to Hatfield. “The aim was to move with minimal impact on the business and no drop in revenue. We thought we could keep more people if we encouraged them to work flexibly and broke the nine to five culture”.

Great lengths were taken to make this a reality, including one to one meetings with 388 employees in 17 days and electing representatives to highlight fears. As 25% of the team had issues with childcare or other caring responsibilities they worked to help them. “We didn’t want to just give cash because that doesn’t necessarily solve stress,” says Lord. In the end, only four people needed additional financial support and a further four stayed in the Harlow call centre.

One of the solutions offered to employees was to work from home, a suggestion some found “abhorrent”. However pilot projects began so teams could test remote working before the move. This involved team talks, building home working guidelines, and making sure everyone had the right equipment. It costs the business the same to lease a laptop as a desktop computer and headsets were added for all employees to be able to use VOIP telephony.

Lord talks of “widening the working window”, with employees able to choose working hours that make commuting and other commitments easier. Even customer-facing portions of the business have managed flexibility, with the introduction of a rotational shift pattern so individuals only do standard hours every third week. They can also work from home part of the time as long as the business needs are met.

Lord is clear that implementation of a truly agile working environment is a long road and the journey is not over. In fact, the experience has highlighted areas where support is needed. Desks are still mainly allocated and some individuals have designated offices. Yet in comparison with the old model, today’s ways of working have been a dramatic change. “It’s a constant evolution,” she says. “We are reducing the teams who come to the office every day.”

Desk attachment

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Unsurprisingly staff members are attached to their desks. In the new building 82% are allocated to people who thought they would be working in the office at least four days a week. The company predicted 70-80% occupancy but five months after moving in, an occupancy survey revealed levels of 43%. This is not desirable in the long term.

Partly, it is a mark of the endeavour’s success. “Until we moved in no-one knew what it would be like,” Lord says. The building is divided into ‘neighbourhoods’ where teams sit and she is now adding hot-desking zones into each one. “In time we want to move to a culture where you can sit at any desk and we use the space more fluidly,” she says, adding that numbers using the building will rise and higher occupancy means a more vibrant space.

There is certainly choice in where to work. As well as conventional desks there are ‘huddle rooms’ that can be used on an ad hoc basis for up to a couple of hours; individual offices; phone booths for conference calls; meeting rooms that seat between 4 and 22 people; two café areas; ‘touchdown’ tables; separate seating areas and raised desks with projectors tucked into the end of each floor. The way the space is used is constantly monitored and adapted – some of the huddle rooms will soon be bookable and a sofa room for lunchtime relaxation is being created as well as more colour and design injected into the spaces.

How to implement successfully

Leading by example is an oft-quoted essential for the implementation of flexible working in a business and Lord agrees this was the case for Pitney Bowes. She adds that peer pressure between managers also helped embed the principles. “We did lots of training for managers about flexible working and invited them into sessions to chat with a peer group and share experiences. Peer pressure works really well, especially if they hear examples from someone they respect on the same level as them in the company.”

She adds that agile working cannot be forced on people. “We give people the choice. If they want to come in from nine to five every day they can. We just ask them to respect that may not work for their team.”

Yet when workers adapt to the flexible approach they become attached to it. Lord says there has been resistance if a manager has tried to reinforce more of an office-based approach on a team level. “People don’t want to give it up. It’s the reason they stayed,” she says.

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(original Harlow office) 

Challenges of the model

There are, of course, issues to tackle and a particular concern has been how to reduce the isolation experienced by some of the home workers. “We do like people to come into the office regularly. Fear of travelling has pushed some people away more than we would like,” she says.

Lord’s team is promoting face to face technology to connect people – encouraging video calls instead of ordinary calls where possible. They are also keen for individuals to come into the office on a regular basis and connect to the business. “There’s no reason why people can’t agree to have a team day in the office once a fortnight,” she suggests.

Monitoring behaviour such as breakdowns in communication, illness or stress is also important. “We have to keep our finger on the pulse because when people’s behaviour changes you have to pick it up quickly to stop it spiralling.”

Tools and training

The company has developed a suite of tools to help support both staff and managers, including a training module on managing agile teams and profiling to assess employee preferences. A partnership with Occupational Psychology Services has enabled the development and introduction of a global questionnaire on employee readiness for agile working so relevant support and training can be provided.

“We believe the questionnaire is the first of its kind. It will help us understand how well suited and ready an individual is to working in a flexible way,” says Lord. “It is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ tool but is based around our core values and tells us how we need to support people. We have been evolving it over 18 months and it has just been launched in the US.”

In time, this will link to online training. And, in a step that will be a breath of fresh air for many struggling to promote flexibility, there is a specific section in the questionnaire and report about managers.

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Ongoing project

The results so far have been impressive. As well as retention success, Lord calculates 500,000 commuting miles were cut in the first year, saving more than £165,000. The changes are being rolled out across the company’s European offices, and have already been implemented in Germany.

A flexible working culture is suited to multi-generational business, says Lord, whether that be younger generations’ desire to blend work and social life; or the responsibilities of family and caring in middle and later life.

For Lord, the realisation that people change at different speeds has been significant. “You have to accept that not everyone is going to do it at the same speed,” she says. “I have managers adamant they were never going to work from home who now do.”

As customer communication technology changes, Pitney Bowes’ once state-of-the-art mailing machines are now preserved for history in shiny glass cases. The company’s ways of working have had a similar overhaul. “We were in desperate need of change. We could have been the dinosaur,” says Lord. That is no longer a possibility.

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Categories: Features, Implementation

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