Why flexible working is now a necessity

So you think your average CIO has enough to worry about without turning the IT department upside down in a move to flexible working? Budget cuts, project backlogs, firefighting, skill shortages - all these and more make daily demands on the coping skills of most CIOs in most sectors. And on top of all these problems, perhaps the chairman's email has gone down and the finance director thinks he has discovered the joys of outsourcing?

So why worry about flexible working? The answer is simple - because flexible working can be the solution - or at least a large part of the solution - to many of the above issues preoccupying CIOs in the tough economic climate of 2009. Let's look first at the issue of budgets, and at the cost base and the major items within that cost base. Whatever the shape and size of your department, and whatever business you are in, you will surely find that two of the biggest of big-ticket items are salaries and office costs. With traditional, inflexible working, many (perhaps most) CIOs find the only way to address urgent firefighting, get projects back on track, or reduce growing backlogs is to introduce expensive overtime working, or perhaps even accept greater use of even more expensive night-shifts.

But it doesn't have to be like that. With flexible working introduced as the normal pattern of employment, it becomes very much easier to adjust the number of staff-hours per day or per month upwards or downwards, depending on current demands. What's more, the experience of CIOs who have moved to the flexible model is that this fundamental change is an extremely popular one with the majority of employees, especially in an age when work-life demands are ever more complicated and harder to balance.

Time, however, is only half the equation in looking at flexibility. Space is the other half. In an age of high-speed broadband and ever more powerful communications technology, do you really need to have all your employees sitting in your high-price office space all day, every day? Perhaps you might find - like many managers including CIOs - that many staff would be perfectly capable of working from home. And doing so efficiently, productively and happily.

It's a formula that has certainly worked brilliantly in the world of call centres, where some of the UK's largest businesses have discovered big benefits from giving employees the freedom and the tools to work from home. With increasing numbers of single-parent families, and with commuting becoming ever more time-consuming, frustrating and expensive, it is surely obvious that home-working has a lot going for it from the employee's viewpoint. For the employer, the chance to reduce office space can have a major beneficial impact on budgets. Well-established developments such as hot desks, touchdown desks and collaboration areas can easily take care of those occasions when staff absolutely must work together in one and the same place, or when they need facilities that only the office can provide.

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Clearly skills shortages and recruiting challenges are not, in a recession, the issues they were a few years ago. But in the world of IT they certainly haven't disappeared, and businesses able to offer the attractions of flexible working, including the option of home working, can often find that they have a head start when it comes to recruiting the people they want.

The power of remote working was brought home to me personally on a recent one-day training course on a new and important piece of software. Six of my colleagues and I - all in different Capgemini locations around the UK - were linked to a trainer in Zurich. We were in contact by voice using audio-conferencing, while the trainer could remotely control the PCs on our desktops. It was a highly effective piece of training, and one that saved us from what otherwise could have been a significant carbon footprint if we had all had to travel to the same location.

Flexible working is now recognised as one of the key elements of so-called ‘Smart Working'. If you want to look in a bit more depth at the benefits it can bring, a good place to start is the website of the UK's Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) at www.cipd.co.uk. In particular, a recent CIPD study (Smart working: the impact of work organisation and job design), to which some of my own colleagues contributed, expands on the ideas I have outlined here and gives some real-life case studies showing how the ideas have worked out in practice in different UK organisations. It is freely available as a pdf document at: http://www.cipd.co.uk/subjects/corpstrtgy/orgdevelmt/_smrtwrkgri.htm

I believe that in 2009 more than ever, flexible working is a necessity for CIOs who want to control costs, keep staff happy, improve productivity and cut carbon emissions. My advice to those who haven't yet implemented flexible working is - give it a serious look, and do so soon.