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New London, new work? Will the Olympics drive a move to new ways of working?

25th July 2012
Luke Connoley

Much has been written about the long- and short-term effects that London 2012 will have on the workplace. About what its legacy will be. To make way for London’s visitors on our transport network over the next few weeks, we are being encouraged to change our journey – travel earlier or later – or to avoid making the journey in the first place. TfL, train operating companies and Locog have been pushing this message for months, with the final rallying cry provided by our Mayor Boris with his colourful announcements on our bus and tube tannoys in the past few weeks.

The theory is that through forcing us to make changes to avoid the predicted additional 1 million daily visitors (a staggering 2 million extra armpits daily on the tube!), we will think about how we work. And how we can work more flexibly. Once we have done this once, why wouldn’t we do it after the crowds have receded and the excitement calmed?

It is a tempting argument to agree with. A sudden change forces individuals to change their well-established habits – and then settle into the new habits thereafter. A line of worker ants coming across a new stone in their well worn path comes to mind – and is strangely reminiscent of train cancellations on the Northern Line. But there are two powerful factors pushing the other way. In a time of continuing economic uncertainty, presenteeism in the office is on the increase. People are feeling a greater need to be seen in the office to show they are a productive and important part of the team. If people are not seen, will they be forgotten? And will they then be the first to be ‘let go’ if the worst happens? Are individuals prepared to take the risk that their managers understand how to judge by results and not by presence?

Secondly, flexibility at work is only achieved when both the organisation and its management embrace a new way of working. Will disruptions over the 17 days of the Olympics and more minor disruption over the Paralympics really change the minds of corporate boards regarding the workplace? It’s very possible that there will be instances of this happening, but will it be widespread and herald a pervasive change?

The drive towards new ways of working within an organisation usually has a strong champion in the management hierarchy. In most cases, without the charisma and energy of such a champion, change simply doesn’t happen. Or the change is so piecemeal that the benefits of flexibility are not felt by the individual or the organisation, and are not measured. If benefits are not measured, the smallest cost increase or budget cut can end a flexibility programme. The Olympics will be an opportunity for any new ways of working champion (or champion-in-waiting) to launch a campaign to bring change in an organisation’s workplace – and will provide a fantastic start off the block. But how many champions-in-waiting are there?

I suspect that Locog’s legacy team don’t list workplace change and innovation very high on their catalogue of Olympic legacies, but arguably if the Olympics does have a widespread influence on flexibility at work, it will be the most tangible daily legacy that the majority of the population feel.

The real impact of the Olympics on the workplace is very difficult to predict, whatever the strong views on either side. It’s a penetrating question whose answer will affect millions. Who knows the answer? This is, as Mayor Boris keeps reminding us, ‘the big one’.

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