• Global telecommunications firm Telenor saw a productivity spike during the switch to online working during coronavirus lockdown.
  • Staff are now free to decide how they divide their hours between office-based work and remote working.
  • Flexible working can help eradicate traditional silos and hierarchical ways of working, streamlining working practices along the way.

“It’s up to you”

That’s the message almost 19,000 employees of Norwegian telecoms giant Telenor received from their CEO, Sigve Brekke, a self-confessed pioneer of a “flexible future”.

The choice on offer is the amount of time each employee wishes to spend working remotely and how many hours they want to spend in the office.

Amid the sudden disruption of enforced remote working in the wake of the pandemic, Brekke perceived a huge spike in productivity linked to staff having the freedom to choose how they worked. It was time for a rethink of established practices, to evolve new ways of working based on flexibility.


A flexible approach

A slow migration to remote working within the global business world was already in progress before COVID-19 appeared, but the pandemic introduced a new urgency.

In our tech-connected world, the flexibility of home working is an attractive proposition for many. Not to mention the lack of a time-consuming daily commute. The State of Remote Work 2020 report quizzed 2,500 remote workers on the topic, and 98% of respondents said they would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their career.

The benefits of remote working.
How employees rate the benefits of remote working.
Image: Buffer

Flexibility was the main attraction for almost a third of those surveyed, with 26% valuing the freedom to work from any location, while 11% felt the biggest advantage in spending more time with family.

Trust and freedom

Finnish telco DNA has successfully embraced a flexible working culture since 2012. As the most recent addition to Telenor’s corporate fold, DNA’s experience has influenced its parent company’s new approach.

“It all comes down to flexibility, trust and freedom,” Brekke explains during a Zoom interview on remote working with the World Economic Forum. “Our daughter company in Finland has had this flexibility for many years. And we can see from their experiences that, on average, their employees are working outside the office around two days a week. And three days a week in the office.”

A company-wide survey of employee experiences of remote working during lockdown showed a change in both attitudes and expectations. Not being present at the office is now perceived as a legitimate practice, whereas it may have been seen previously as less so.

“It’s OK to be sitting in a home office somewhere. It’s OK not being physically in a room, and it’s expected that it’s OK. But it’s also expected that you are at work,” Brekke says.

Tailoring the approach

While greater trust and flexibility produced a spike in both efficiency and motivation, many employees missed both their colleagues and being part of a team. That’s why Telenor’s new approach isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but everyone has the right to choose what works for them.

Brekke describes the new approach as a global culture that’s implemented locally, with individual business units in Telenor’s operating countries from Norway to Bangladesh adapting work practices to local market conditions.

For him, the key to success rests on giving staff members the freedom to choose the right balance, but it is also essential to build the culture, so in-office time for socializing and brainstorming is mandatory. Outside of office hours, social gatherings and team building events are also a priority.

A question of tightening and loosening the reins

The next-generation workday is about more than simply changing where people work, Brekke says. It’s an opportunity to adapt and streamline the company structure, flattening out the organisation to speed up decision-making and boost efficiency.

“We are quite excited about giving our employees the freedom, but at the same time using that freedom to change basically the entire organisation and the way we work,” he says.

“We see now that we can actually reduce the number of layers in the organisation and adopt a more project-based way of working. So you take away some of the traditional silos and hierarchical ways of working, for a much more cross-functional, project-based alternative."

Adopting trust-based leadership involves training Telenor’s management teams around the world in what the company calls “tight, loose, tight”.

You have to be tight on setting expectations and clear what you want your staff to do, Brekke says. Then loose to give staff the freedom and empowerment to figure out the best way to meet their targets. And then tight again on follow-up, so staff are accountable.

Will tech firms set a trend in the new working normal?

Telenor is not the only early adopter of a more flexible approach to working. Tech giants Twitter and Square recently announced that their employees will have the option to work from home for ever, while staff at Google and Facebook will be able to work remotely until the end of 2020.

These companies could be a model for others to follow. The pandemic that forced many firms around the world to switch rapidly to home working could also be the catalyst for both businesses and employees to embrace remote working's benefits.