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What flexible working really means

This coming Friday will be Flexible Working Awareness day as we reported elsewhere in the news. A lot of the focus will inevitably be on technology but that’s only part of the picture. Flexible working is as much a training and management issue as anything, and it will change the way businesses are thought of in future.

Communications technology

It’s worth covering off the technology side first. The main technological component of keeping people productive when they are working remotely is communication, and this is where many flexible working schemes go wrong. This isn’t because of the company’s equipment but because the last stage of communication is based on the employee’s Internet link, which is likely to be a consumer rather than business grade connection.

This will be suitable for a lot of applications but if it goes wrong there isn’t the same service guarantee as is available in a business account.

Happily the quality of communications technology is now very high indeed. Quality headsets and high definition webcams are relatively inexpensive (the ones that come with the computer or laptop are rarely the best), and given an implementation from vendors such as Polycom and others it’s relatively simple to have a communications system that’s unified so that Instant Messages can escalate to a call and then to a video call across a number of different devices without too much trouble.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)

More serious is the issue of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), initially hailed as a great way for businesses and public sector entities to save a lot of money but in practice it can turn out to be the reverse. The principle is simple enough as any IT professional will confirm. The employee brings (or if they’re working remotely keeps with them) their own device, whether it’s a phone or tablet. They install whichever corporate apps are needed and continue to be productive. The organisation saves money on capital purchases and also on training, as remarkably few people need training to use their own phone.

For the CIO there are other issues to consider around both technology and logistics. In technology terms it’s reasonably certain that, say, Apple will still be producing iPads to a standard and Google will continue to produce Android technology for the foreseeable future. Whether some third party will adapt Android in such a way that it impedes the use of some apps is another thing; Amazon, for example, sells its Fire devices which work on versions of Google’s operating system, and Sony Ericsson phones also use adapted versions of it.

So the first consideration is that the technologist has to be prepared to support and adapt for any device or piece of software the popular manufacturers might release. The second is what happens to a device that doesn’t belong to the company. Is it exposed to non-employees? Do the kids use it for their homework? A full risk assessment is needed, as is an agreement as to who owns the responsibility for insuring the device(s) and it’s worth investigating any premises to be used regularly.

Health and safety

This is the point at which you start to move away from the purely technical and start to look at the surrounding elements. These can be considered from the point of view of the environment and the people.

Environment is important. Home workers and people using other flexible areas are subject to the same health and safety laws as anyone else and if an employer knowingly authorises someone to work where they will be causing themselves harm, they can be held liable. Self-certification has in the past proven sufficient; it’s worth keeping in touch with a compliance officer in your organisation, who will be able to keep pace with any changes to regulations.

Even more important than the “fabric” elements of flexible working are the human elements, both from the employee’s point of view and that of the employer.

There is a fallacy that suggests every employee will respond well to working from home. As long ago as 2001, BT decided to institute a working from home policy for a year and found that after a year many employees opted to come back to the office. It’s not for everybody and the support structures need to be in place. More recently in 2013 HP followed Yahoo! in deciding that home working was not productive and that people should return to the office.

Organisations that do it successfully – Plantronics is referenced fairly extensively in a book I researched wrote on the subject – tend to start by asking the employees exactly what they want through a survey and they take it from there. Even more importantly they trained their managers. Running a business whose staff you can’t see in front of you requires different skills from having face time with staff the whole time. The trust issues are considerable. They can be helped by technology; one contact centre outsourcer of whom we’re aware has home workers and monitors them for their presence the whole time. For other companies this will seem a little Big Brother-ish.

End bit

Finally it’s worth mentioning that the changing nature of the workplace will have effects on the shape of the enterprise overall. Already the perimeter of an organisation is fluid because of mobile technology; expand this to include flexible working and therefore save money on plant, and you can consolidate into smaller buildings. Combined with the increased use of the freelance, project-based economy (why hire members of staff every time when a freelancer will do the work and handle their own HR issues?) and it can be seen that the flexible or smarter working enterprise, and its effect on the structure of an organisation will in the long term affect the value of a business overall.

Flexible Working Awareness Day is Friday. The big question is whether the UK in general and individual businesses are ready for all of the implications.