Flexible working and the Olympics

With less than two weeks to go until the Olympics begin, employers are bracing themselves for commuting chaos. Some experts have predicted there will be as many as 3.3 million extra public transport journeys during the busiest days of the Games, and Transport for London has urged businesses to aim to reduce travel into the affected areas of London by one-third.

Many organisations will have a difficult balance to strike: on the one hand, staff may be looking for time off to enjoy the events; on the other, the additional potential custom brought by the Games will make thousands of businesses busier than ever. For others, staff simply won’t be able to get to work at their usual time. For many organisations, the Olympics provides a golden opportunity to trial flexible working – whether that is allowing employees to start and finish their day at different times, work from home or meet their goals without having to be a constant presence in the office.

But how can employers ensure that their flexible working plans hold up, and also measure their success with a view to giving staff more freedom over how they work in the long term? Peter Thomson, visiting executive fellow at Henley Business School and co-author of Future Work, says that in order to measure how successful flexible working can be for them during this period, organisations need to measure what staff are doing already. “The crunch is that managers have difficulty measuring output. The managers who are nervous about letting people work flexibly are the ones who don’t know what they do while they are in the office,” he says. “They need to be clear about what needs to be done and when – which is something they should be doing anyway. Presence is not the only way to measure what someone is doing.”

BOX: Olympic efforts

  • In May it was announced that thousands of Government staff in Whitehall will stay away from the office to ease congestion during the Olympics. Business groups criticised the move, with the Business Services Association commenting: “Seven weeks is a long time to have the heart of Government working intermittently.”
  • London employees of the Royal Bank of Scotland will be able to work flexibly during the Games, working from home “where appropriate”, particularly on exceptionally busy days in terms of transport. Again, the announcement sparked criticism with the reputation of banks at a low point.
  • Citigroup, the banking giant based just a few miles from the Olympic Park in Canary Wharf, surveyed employees last year on their commuting intentions during the games. It hopes to reduce the number of staff travelling into the office by 30%, in line with Transport for London’s goal.

O2’s successful flexible working pilot

Mobile network operator O2 has already held an extensive trial of flexible working in anticipation of the Olympics. In February this year, the company asked the entire workforce to stay away from its 200,000 square foot Slough head office. More than 2,500 people worked successfully away from the office, and more than one-third reported being more productive than usual. O2 calculated that collectively its employees saved around 2,000 hours of commuting time, and while just over half of staff used that extra time to do more work, 14% were able to spend extra time with their families.

O2 has since taken its flexible working pilot further by asking directorates across the business to nominate a designated flexible working day each week to embed this working culture into the organisation. “As well as providing our people with the technology they need to work remotely, we proactively seek to encourage a flexible working culture rather than one of presenteeism,” says Leslie Franklin, people policy consultant at the company. “For us, this summer will be very much business as usual.”

O2 has clearly gone to great lengths to trial flexible working and measure the gains made. But building a culture where staff feel trusted to work outside the traditional boundaries of “nine-to-five” or physically away from the office does not always happen overnight. Ann Brown, UK HR director of technology consulting and outsourcing company Capgemini, believes that technology is merely an enabler for flexible working – how productive employees are will depend on the management culture of the organisation.

“You can have great mobile technology in place but a lazy culture,” she says. “If the management sets objectives that they expect people to deliver, then meets with them regularly and offers them coaching if they need it, [flexible working] works. Otherwise it can be a sloppy arrangement.”

Capgemini already allows staff to work flexibly, but as a client-facing business has to consider the needs of its customers above those of its own staff. “We have to think about what works for the client. Some will have particular demands during the Olympic period, so not all employees will be able to work flexibly. If a client expects our employees to be highly visible, as a supplier we can’t impose our working culture on them. So we find a balance for those employees the rest of the time.”

Wide range of options available

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), more than half of businesses will make changes to their working practices during the Olympics to enable staff to work more flexibly. Rebecca Clake, CIPD research adviser, suggests there is a range of options open to employers to help them balance their business requirements with the need to reduce commuting time or allowing staff time off. “The key for employers is to plan ahead, set out clearly what the organisation’s approach is and the rationale behind it, and apply it consistently,” she says.

Options include flexi time, home-working or setting out core hours where staff should available but how they arrange their work around those hours is up to them. Staff could also swap shifts or take unpaid leave if they are desperate to see a key event, according to the CIPD’s updated guidance on sporting events and absence management. At Capgemini, says Ann Brown, expectations are set on the outcomes employees deliver, rather than where or how, but not every role in every organisation will be able to operate in this way.

Get it right, though, and the payback in terms of extra productivity and engagement could be worth its weight in gold, concludes Brown. “When you do get flexible working right, it’s a huge motivator and improves engagement. It’s an adult working relationship where the employee feels trusted.”

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