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6 June 2014

Making flexible working work: Tata Communications’ Global Communications Team

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We’re talking about flexible working again. How many examples are there of companies that wholeheartedly embrace flexible working, over and above a grudging agreement for people to finish at 5 or to spend one day a week working at home? The answer is not many. However at Tata Communications, one of the world’s leading global telecoms companies, Rozzyn Boy heads its global Corporate communications and Brand team of 15 people stationed all over the world. They are culturally and geographically diverse and five of them work flexibly. It is a rare and highly successful example of using remote and flexible working to make sure the very best people achieve the very best results, irrespective of time zone or location. Here, Rozz tells us how it works and why it’s the way forward.

For Rozz it’s not a question of ‘having to do’ flexible working, although Tata’s global reach makes it necessary. Rather, it’s a modus operandi that ensures the comms team can tap into and embrace the widest pool of skilled people and that the global team can operate in the business hours that are indicative of a truly global organisation.

Rozz says you have to make a decision – either flexible working will be part of how you get things done or it won’t. She decided it would and says she has never been disappointed; never been unable to reach someone she needs to reach. In fact, she says, it allows them to recruit absolutely the right people for the job. To get the best from flexible working Rozz prescribes a culture of trust, openness and results. She says: “We don’t tend to clock watch. We often communicate early in the morning or at night so we can’t push the 9-5 mentality (unless of course the person in question is in a particular role that does require certain starting or finishing hours.) If we require people in on a (video) meeting at 9pm, you should expect to see them sitting at their kitchen table and not in the office. This doesn’t happen by magic. You do have to agree certain ground rules”.

First, flexible working is best when a structure has been pre-agreed. You need to look at each set of circumstances individually and it’s important to be open with everyone about the reasons for flexible working. “Flexible working is not a given. Sometimes you do say no. We discuss it so that everyone understands why flexible working is a good idea or not – for the particular individual in question,” she says. For it to work, the team needs to trust the decision taken as to whether it’s suitable for one and not for others.

Secondly, flexible working must be part of the company culture, endorsed from the CEO downwards. Remote and flexible working is, for the most part, a part of Tata Communications’ culture because of its global reach – even the senior leadership team are very rarely in the same office together, or, in the same office as the teams they manage / work with.

Thirdly, you have to get the boundaries right. Not in terms of hours or geography but in terms of having solid infrastructure and what Rozz calls healthy housekeeping rules. “For example, if you have a model agreed with an individual, I do expect to be able to call them and have them return a call, or email or text in response within a reasonable turnaround time. You have to put the technology in place to make this possible”.

Once you have your ground rules in place you need consistency. “Consistency is very important,” says Rozz, “because it says this is our culture. No surprises, no unnecessary debates. And it means everyone understands who does what, when”. She also points out, however, that this model needs to be respected within the framework of the working week. It’s important that people’s private time on weekends and holidays are respected. You need to separate and keep in perspective the flexible model within the agreed work and non-work time. Again, she says this comes down to bespoke agreements with each of the individuals and what works and doesn’t work for them within the boundaries of their business and personal time.

Rozz says people who lead teams should stop apologising about flexible working, stop being nervous about it. “If someone abuses the privilege you can, after all, just change the arrangements. It is better to say: This is us. We do flexible working. If we want the right person for the job it might mean not having that person full time at the moment.”

Rozz works with a number of mums that have returned to the workforce. She is passionate about ensuring the workforce is not losing key skillsets from the talent pool because of short sightedness to accommodate flexible working models for mums that still want to maintain their careers. Tata Group companies run a programme called Tata SCIP (second  careers internship programme) which is a career transition management programme for women professionals who have taken a break of six months or more, and wish to re-enter the professional space. The programme provides opportunities for these women to take on flexi-hour assignments with various TATA group companies. Rozz has hired two returning mums from this programme and says it has worked very well. It also allows fresh blood into the team – either on a short or long term basis.

Rozz agrees that, in an agency environment, there are specific challenges for flexible workers relating to client expectations and the creative process but that this isn’t insurmountable. “As a client I am completely fine with it as long as I don’t feel it impacts our business and the agreed deliverables with the particular agency.” In fact she thinks the trend is burgeoning and cites a survey in which 60% of people who are currently working flexibly said they would turn down a company in the future if it didn’t allow them to continue working flexibly. “We are seeing an increasing shift towards flexible working, particularly in emerging markets, and think we’ll see that intensify over the next few years. Companies that don’t embrace it will lose good skills and good people.”

Have you got a great case study of flexible working? We’d love to hear about it.

You can read more of Rozz Boy’s writing here.