Lionel van der Walt and Matthew Wigginton
Lionel van der Walt and Matthew Wigginton

Is procurement suited to flexible working environments?

3 March 2023

While Covid brought a shift to flexible working practices, recent cost pressures have prompted Elon Musk-style conservatism. In today’s environment, is there room for both?


"Autocracy can stifle innovation and kill the drive to try new things"
Matthew Wigginton, head of procurement and contract management at West Sussex County Council

“Resilience is built through trust and flexibility. We need to say we will come together one or two days, but it’s about making it a bit more of an enjoyable experience when we do. Procurement needs to be working with its customer base, and not in a remote location sat in a distant office – we need to be face to face. We need to be there not just within our own little procurement huddle, but also with our customers working in their environments so we understand what their situations and challenges are, and so we can work with them so we’re seen as part of their team, rather than a remote service. Having that face-to-face time is so important, because I don’t think you can have a team really working entirely remotely.

I’ve worked with procurement directors and the heads of procurement who were a bit of the more autocratic ‘bang the table’ 1950s style, and I’ve also worked in the Ministry of Defence where it’s very much command and control – ‘you do something, you get it done, everyone comes together, and that’s how you deliver results’ style of approach. In some cases this works, but it doesn’t foster a great business relationship and working relationship, and it is not free flowing. It stifles innovation and any excitement to do something a bit differently.

Having had such a flexible three years or so, ordering someone to do something in a certain place at a certain time, you might get a very quick ‘no, thank you, I don’t fancy doing that, I’ll go somewhere else where there is more common sense’. It should be about being business-driven, business-led and business needs, but having a blend so that it allows people to manage their own arrangements which suit their own work-life styles through having that flexibility. That’s the luxury of it, so make the most of it.”

"Some find comfort in structure and some jobs cannot be done remotely"
Lionel van der Walt, chief growth officer at Raft

“Our industry is more traditional in terms of leadership styles. For instance, if you look at attitudes to flexible working, I think we are behind many others. At the start of Covid most people wanted to work remotely, but over time people missed the warmth and value of in-person interactions which make relationship-building easier. People want autonomy to make these decisions, and flexibility to achieve a balance between in-person and remote work. But most of us need social interaction and a sense of belonging, and fully remote working doesn’t satisfy these needs. And, obviously, many jobs cannot be performed remotely, such as ground handling or port operations, so that doesn’t lend itself to flexibility.

From a start-up perspective, management style depends on the stage you are at. Early on, these businesses are run by small groups of people doing multiple roles – it’s dynamic, the roles are loose, and you tend to see less structure. Later, though, they have to bring in processes, procedures and structures to effectively manage the rapid growth. Many of these businesses are run by younger leadership teams, and some gravitate towards a more ‘old-fashioned’ in-person approach that they feel helps them with things like control, collaboration and teamwork. Also, the supply chain sector is global in nature, and the preferred management style may vary based on location. Different cultures have different attitudes towards factors such as power-distance and uncertainty-avoidance, for example.

Some people feel more comfortable having autonomy to make decisions and work unsupervised, while others prefer structured environments where management leads decision-making and directs their activities. It would be a mistake to generalise and reach conclusions based on our own local experiences and filters. Many leadership styles are feasible under different conditions.”

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