BT growth strategy relies on flexibility

Growth is the aim of BT’s new business strategy and the firm is evolving its
work-life balance practices to recruit and retain the best staff to achieve it.

John Steele, group personnel director of BT, told Personnel Today that there
is a strong business case for the expansion of work-life practices.

The telecoms giant currently has 60,000 mobile workers, 9,000 part-timers
and 5,000 home workers among its 115,000 staff, and has saved more than £220m
on real estate and related costs, claimed Steele.

"We’ve progressed work-life balance over the years with a set of
progressive and yet pragmatic policies – we always ask ourselves if it adds
value to the business," said Steele, ahead of BT’s Work-life Balance Week
and conference (8-12 April).

But it is not just about making cost savings. "The newer people coming
into the workforce don’t want to live to work – they want to work to
live," said Steele.

"If you want to be a successful, sustainable and long-term company, you
have to get the best talent. This will only be achieved by fishing in the
broadest pool possible and creating a work-life balance approach."

BT is expanding two programmes that will greatly increase its staff’s
ability to work flexibly.

The Freedom to Work initiative allows staff to determine their own work
patterns and has grown from a trial among 18 staff in 1998 to more than 12,000
employees today. Staff can work flexibly in a number of different ways,
including the completion of full hours over four days, periodic home working or
working longer hours for a period to accrue non-working time.

The initiative was set up to tackle the culture of ‘presenteeism’ at BT and
Steele intends to extend this programme to include more BT staff.

Steele, who is to retire in three months after more than ten years in the
role, said: "It has been the genesis of individual work patterns. We
wanted people to tell us what patterns they wanted to work. Staff have turned
down other work opportunities as they want the flexibility we have given them
to do their work."

The firm is also set to launch a performance-related-pay scheme for customer
service engineers, which aims to extend its work-life balance practices into blue
collar roles.

Steele, 59, wants to roll out BT’s new self-motivated teams concept in early
summer to 25,000 staff. It will reward staff for performance rather than
attendance, and enable parents to spend more time with their families.

Customer service engineers, who fit and repair BT products in homes and
businesses, have traditionally topped up their salaries through overtime. But
engineers in self-motivated teams will be now able to accumulate points for
high performance that will translate into additional payments to their basic

Points can be accumulated on an individual and team basis for the number of
jobs completed, quality of work and improvements in customer satisfaction,
among other things.

A successful 13-week trial of the profit-related pay system by 5,500 field
engineers ended in March, and Steele claimed that it boosted productivity by 5
per cent and quality of service by 8 per cent.

During the trial engineers also worked two hours less each week and earned
more, Steele added. Unions are currently consulting with members.

"The people who missed out on overtime because of family commitments
will now be able to earn more money by performing better and having the
opportunity to do more in the time available," he said.

A key challenge for Steele has been to ensure that the work-life balance
practices support the company’s business strategy. In 2001, the company
suffered pre-tax losses of more than £1bn. He explained that the company has
reduced its debt to "more reasonable levels", restructured and held
the largest rights issue ever in the UK.

"We’re now in a phase where our new CEO, Ben Verwaayen, is looking for
growth and the key principle is customer satisfaction and service.

"What we’re trying to do from a people point of view is get staff with
the right skills and right attitude. We want a can-do attitude with people
prepared to take commercial risks where appropriate and be prepared to do what
is right for the customer."

BT has to recruit people from a "diverse set of backgrounds and
experiences" to achieve these capabilities. Steele explained: "If you
want to create opportunities for a diverse population then you have to have
work-life balance."

By Mike Broad

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