BT homes in on flexible working

Decades on, BT is continuing to champion the cause of flexible working among its workforce by focusing on creating ‘agile’ environments for its employees.

There’s a new buzzword in town, and this time it’s ‘agile workers’. But it’s not just another term invented on a management-school flip-chart; this one comes from BT – the company that has been pioneering flexible working since the early 1980s.

Caroline Waters, director of people networks at BT, says the company now boasts 8,000 homeworkers, with 70 per cent of its 90,000 employees working flexibly. The challenge, as she sees it, is for BT is to take the story to the next chapter.

“We’re always looking at new forms of flexibility because we’re always creating new forms of workers,” she said.

“The next stage is deciding how we can improve what we’ve got, and how to maximise performance within a flexible-working organisation.”

As a result, BT is now looking at creating ‘agile’ environments for its employees. Waters explained: “We’ve got our agile workers [those that occasionally work from home], but we need to discover what space they should be working in, how we should go about supporting them, and what they need when they come to work in the building.”

The impact of this new style of working on the bottom line is impressive. BT has saved tens of millions of pounds in terms of office space, transport, recruitment and retention.

It has benefited both the company and the lives of its employees. For every hour that they used to commute to work, the new breed of BT agile workers are spending an average of 36 minutes working for the company, and 24 minutes with their families.

BT is also very good at using the experience it has gained – which has made it more productive as a business – and aligning it with its service offering.

“Sharing that learning with our customers is a way of putting real HR value around our products,” said Waters. “If you look at the technology we’ve developed, it’s a complete case study that translates very well to other large FTSE companies.”

The biggest current people issue within BT centres on understanding the changing demographics of its workforce.

“We’ve always had a long-term ambition to be an organisation whose people profile is representative of the communities in which we operate,” said Waters. “And understanding that changing picture and translating that through into the workforce is critical.”

BT topped this year’s Business in the Community (BITC) Race for Opportunity poll on diversity in UK workplaces as best private sector employer.

“We’re delighted with coming out on top,” said Waters. “Diversity is hugely important to the business. You will never hear our chairman or chief executive speak without talking about diversity in some form or other. It’s in everything we do every day.”

Aside from the business case – its Asian business line brings in £100m each year – BT also has a higher than average proportion of staff from ethnic minorities, around 12 per cent. This compares with the national average of 9.7 per cent, so the company has a responsibility to ensure their needs are met, said Waters.

“We really understand that if you are going to do business with a very diverse customer base, you need to reflect that in your workforce, because you need to understand where those different market segments are coming from.”  

The next stage for the company is ensuring its suppliers also have adequate diversity systems in place.

Waters is critical of companies that are reluctant to commit to diversity.  “I think they are missing out on huge bottom-line opportunities and spoiling their chances of creating a sustainable business,” she said.

For years, BT’s slogan was ‘It’s good to talk’, but these days, Waters said, the company is learning that it’s even better to listen.

“We have an incredibly strong relationship with our people. We’re a communications business, so we are constantly having conversations with them,” she said. “They have lots of avenues for raising issues that are a concern to them, on an individual or much broader level. Therefore, we’re able to deal with lots of things at source so they don’t actually become a bigger issue.”

Senior management at BT is also leading by example. This March, they froze their basic pay for the third year running, to set an example to employees.

The company is also involved in the Age Positive campaign, as well as working with Employers for Carers and the Government on the Carers Bill, and in a partnership with the Equal Opportunities Commission on caring strategies.

“There is a confidence about HR in BT,” said Waters. “We believe we are valued by the business, we believe we contribute, we can measure that contribution, and we can articulate it. That makes us a powerful force.”

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