Why Flexi-Work Works

The Government’s decision to press ahead with legislation extending flexible working rights, despite a looming recession, was greeted with dismay in many quarters. However, there is strong evidence that, far from imposing another unwelcome burden on businesses at the same time as they are having to deal with a sharp economic downturn, the widening of flexible working – as envisaged in the last Queen’s Speech – could prove to be a boon.

Businesses that allow their staff to work from home at least some of the time, encourage desk sharing and adopt other forms of flexible working can see significant cost savings. Work Wise UK, a not-for-profit organisation set up by the information technology industry to promote changes in working practices through smarter working, calculates that, when the cost of property, heating, lighting and associated overheads are added up, providing an employee with a desk averages about £7,000 a year across the UK. In London, the cost is closer to £10,000.

Phil Flaxton, chief executive of the organisation, says: “If you’re a small business and you do away with five desks because people are not coming in five days a week or are sharing desks, you can potentially save £35,000 a year. To a small business, that is significant. If you scale that up to a big organisation in London, you could save more than £3m-4m by cutting 100 desks.”

Nor are the benefits limited to cost savings. Flaxton points to research showing that, in many organisations, home workers and other flexible workers are more productive. And the message is starting to get across to a range of businesses. According to figures from the TUC, nearly 3.5 million people in the UK currently work from home. This is an increase of 600,000 on the figure in 1997 and amounts to more than 12 per cent of the population. The highest proportions of home workers are found in the South-west (15.7 per cent of the total), and Eastern England (14.4 per cent), while the North-east (9.3 per cent) and Scotland (9.4 per cent) have the lowest proportions.

However, home working is just one aspect of the new forms of working that Work Wise calls “smarter working”. Others include flexible working (which takes in condensed hours, nine-day fortnights and travelling to work outside traditional commuting times) and mobile and remote working. The organisation, which has among its partners the TUC, the Confederation of British Industry, the British Chambers of Commerce, BT and Transport for London, wants half the working population, or 14 million people, to be offered smarter working by 2011.

Support for the campaign could be boosted by growing disgruntlement among commuters. With train fares on many commuter routes rising by well over the inflation rate and congestion on the roads so serious, it is hardly surprising that Work Wise reports that 41 per cent of workers spend more than 40 minutes travelling to work each day, with the average UK worker spending 360 hours, or 45 working days, each year travelling to work.

In the meantime, one of those in the vanguard of flexible working is BT. While this is understandable given the company’s interest in promoting the use of the telecommunications and related equipment that in many ways enables flexible working, the company is seeing the benefits far beyond the promotion of its services.

The clearest gain has been in the company’s running costs, which have been reduced from about £1.2bn a year to about £800m a year in the approximately eight years since the company began to introduce flexible working. About 80 per cent of the company’s 112,000 employees now work flexibly in some way.

The biggest contributor to lower running costs is the reduction in, or more efficient use, of office space. BT Centre in London, for example, has just 1,600 work stations, but about 8,000 BT people use it each day. Dave Dunbar, head of BT Workstyle, which uses BT’s experience to help other organisations adopt flexible working, says that the company is increasingly seeing advantages in other areas, such as staff retention, productivity and in the company’s ability to be more project-based. He points out that BT’s homeworkers are 20 per cent more efficient than office-based counterparts, while absenteeism is down by 60 per cent.

Flexible working can also help companies satisfy customers who demand 24-hour service, as well as those who have workforces spread across the globe. At the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, Nigel Legg, a clinical information sharing manager based at one of the company’s main research sites at Macclesfield, Cheshire, is one of many employees at all levels of the company opting to work flexibly. He works closely with colleagues in Sweden and the US, and if he could only work in his office, the time differences between the various locations would make for very long days. But by doing some of his work at home he can improve his family life by seeing his young children before they go to bed and then resuming work using a secure computer link between his home and office.

Some observers worry that the prevalence of increasingly sophisticated technology means that workers might be spending less time in their offices but are working longer hours overall because they can always be contacted. But Legg maintains he is “not working longer, just working differently”.

Even if some people are working longer, many employees put enough value on the opportunity to split their time between work and home, or even some other activity, that they feel the sacrifice is worth it.

Modern employees and employers are increasingly moving away from the idea of a fixed working day. Thanks to devices such as the Blackberry and other more powerful, smaller or cheaper devices, there is a blurring of the boundary between work and personal life that seems to suit the technology-savvy generation that has either recently entered the workforce or is about to do so.

Nor is this revolution restricted to office work. There is nothing technically to stop any organisation gaining from using various forms of smart or flexible working. For example, AA and RAC servicemen tend to be remote workers who take their vehicles home and work from there, while engineers with energy companies work similarly.

What does have to change, though, is the approach to management in organisations. Mary Mercer, principal consultant at the Institute for Employment Studies, says: “There’s still a focus on hours. Getting managers to focus on outputs is one of the greatest challenges.”

With “presenteeism” still the norm in many businesses, there needs to be more trust for the true gains from flexible working to appear. Managers also need to realise that the issues are complex, with employees valuing the ability to spend time at home or on other activities beside work but also often enjoying the social side of their jobs.

Flexible working may have started out as a “soft” human resources issue that organisations offered in good times as part of the desire to be “an employer of choice” or to help them retain staff in the “war for talent”. But the business case has become so robust that it is now a vital aid for businesses struggling to stay afloat. Smart working employees can more efficiently meet customer needs while cutting overheads. It looks like a winning combination.

(source: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/sustainit/why-flexiwork-works-1605551.html)

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com

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