Flexible working: bouncing back

Flexible working is making a comeback – driven by the impending recession and government enthusiasm for the concept.

Flexible working is a growing phenomenon and the government’s plans to increase the right to request flexible hours next April are set to accelerate the trend. But what does the future hold for this way of working in the face of soaring commuter costs and a troubled economy? Will any of us actually go into the office to work in 20 years’ time or will we all be working remotely?

A sickly economy was behind the last major resurgence in flexible working, when power cuts forced then prime minister Edward Heath’s government to impose a three-day week in the 1970s. More than 30 years later, economic pressures could prove to be the ultimate driver behind the growth of home working or hot desking. There are already indications that the impending recession and the cost of office space are causing organisations to cut overhead costs. A recent report by property firm Cushman & Wakefield found that a quarter of companies expected to reduce their office space requirements in the next year to cut costs.

Predictions

Peter Thomson, director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management School, anticipates that within the next two decades, the office will evolve into a central rendezvous, based around meeting rooms and casual meeting space. The rest of our working time will be spent with clients or working on the move.

“There’s no magic rule that says knowledge work has to be done in an office,” Thomson says.

Technology experts agree. “Work is a thing you do, not a place you go,” says Alex Reeve, director of the mobile business group at Microsoft UK. The software giant has recently been collaborating with consultancy the Future Laboratory to produce the report Work and Mobile Cities. It identified a new generation of workers – dubbed ‘flexibods’ – who work in ‘third spaces’ such as trains, hotels and parks, or in collaborative hubs. They will use cloud computing – software that runs from the internet rather than individual computers.

At software company Adobe, Debbie Jones, UK marketing manager for Acrobat and E-learning, forecasts that the technology needed for flexible working in the next decade will be built on recent innovations such as the virtual classrooms and virtual breakout rooms used with web cams in e-learning and e-meeting products.

“The next 10 years will be about getting as much interactivity as possible,” she says.

Increased flexibility

The rise in flexible working, from home to mobile to fractional (part-time) working, could also be fuelled by concerns about lifestyle, productivity and the economy.

“From being seen as a family-friendly employee benefit, flexibility will change to become a business and productivity-friendly strategy,” Thomson predicts. “Flexible working is more productive, staff are more loyal, there is less absenteeism and employers feel that they can attract and retain them at a time and a place that suits their lifestyle.”

He argues that an increase in flexible arrangements should, ultimately, be driven by a business-focused HR strategy, not by the impact of new legislation. He makes the case for results-based working, which lends itself to flexible patterns.

“Conventional working rewards inefficiency,” Thomson says, “results-based working rewards productivity.”

And this could be particularly important in light of the struggling economy. “At the moment, for a business to survive, it has to get maximum value from the workforce. If you understand this, it will help in the difficult times.”

Broad role

Just as Thomson envisages a broad role for flexibility, so Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) diversity adviser Dianah Worman sees a broad definition of what flexibility is and how it can be implemented into the way organisations work. She says it can encompass issues of diversity and changes to the working environment.

“When most people think about flexibility, they will be thinking about flexible working patterns,” Worman notes, “but it is absolutely key to the world we live in. For example, in responding to changes in the environment such as delivering services 24/7, or the credit crunch where organisations have to manage income and deliver to the marketplace, organisations have to be able to flex.”

Yet a shift in attitudes is still needed, says Dr Caroline Gatrell, a lecturer in sociology and management at Lancaster University. Gatrell’s research has found that part-time working is career-limiting for women (because employers see it as connected to family responsibilities and an indication of lack of commitment to work) but, conversely, career-enhancing for men (who often want to flex their hours to take on a position on the board).

However, she points out that employers may be more receptive to cutting back on an employee’s hours as a money-saving exercise. “On the flip side, part-time work is being welcomed, and now might be a good time for people to request it,” she says.

The one constant in these uncertain times, however, is change, and flexible working will almost certainly become the norm in the next decade or so as businesses finally start to realise the benefits.

Case study: Fenland District Council

Fenland District Council is a big advocate of flexible working, and 60% of its employees work part-time.

Shari Khan, change and development manager at the council, says: “Opportunities are being taken up by our employees, which means that we have to be quite creative when it comes to learning solutions.”

Khan practises what she preaches, working four days a week to meet family commitments.

She says the council offers flexible work in terms of times, days and locations. Compressed hours and homeworking are available to all. “And to be a flexible organisation, we have to reflect the flexible working opportunities that we give our staff with the flexible learning that we offer them.”

Khan also deploys the Learndirect government agency to offer staff a range of courses from Skills for Life to NVQs in management and bite-size chunks of e-learning. She reinforces the learning programme with a resource library and tutor-led sessions.

The success of the approach is shown in its Comprehensive Performance Assessment rating of ‘excellent’, Khan adds, and in employee feedback.

“More than 80% of people said that they were proud to work for Fenland District Council,” she says.

Case study: Keystone Law

Flexible working has brought lifestyle and business benefits to lawyers at Keystone Law, one of the UK’s fastest-growing firms.

The firm operates a virtual flexible working model. Its 70 lawyers work from satellite offices – usually in their own homes. They are supported by a small London office, where eight employees handle administration and meeting facilities.

Mobile technology is at the heart of the operation; Keystone’s systems are hosted on a third-party server. All solicitors joining the firm are issued with a BlackBerry and laptop computer, through which they benefit from online data back-up, call forwarding, e-mail reporting and archiving, as well as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) applications such as Skype. They all have access to Keystone’s intranet, which helps with diary and calendar management, case management, and team working.

Managing director James Knight combats any fears of isolation by offering regular social and training events. “Mobile technology means we can operate in a manner that is no less cohesive or seamless than a conventional practice, while allowing our lawyers to enjoy a level of flexible working unheard of in any other law firm in the UK,” he says.

He points out that technology allows the firm to cut out wastage, commuting and high rent bills, all of which results in lower fees for the customer. The company’s remuneration system allows solicitors to work as many or as few hours as they choose, and billing targets have been removed, which eases the pressure on them.

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