In May a government-commissioned review of flexible working recommended an extension to the current laws regarding the right to request variable hours or opportunities to work at home from their employers.

The independent review, which was headed by Sainsbury’s human resources director Imelda Walsh, concluded that parents with children aged 16 or under should have the option to request flexibility.

Flexible working is a catch-all term to describe any working pattern that is adapted to suit the needs of the employee. Common types of flexible working include part-time or flexi-time working through annualised, compressed or staggered hours, job sharing or homeworking. Any of these can be combined to produce a pattern that works for both the employee and the employer. Legislation regarding flexible working currently comes under the Flexible Working (Procedural Requirements) Regulations of 2002, which came into effect in 2003.

Currently, the law states that working parents with children aged six or under, or up to 18 if the child is disabled, have the right to request flexible working and to have that request seriously considered by their employer. The government has accepted the Walsh group’s recommendation, and in fact has gone further, stating that the right to request flexible working will apply to all parents with children aged 17 or under. The new interpretation could kick in as early as April 2009. This could benefit 4.5 million parents and cause a big headache to unprepared organisations.

From setting up a telephone and internet connection for part-time workers to installing videoconferencing facilities, it’s clear that ICT will play a large role in developing flexible working practices, leaving CIOs with the choice of either dealing with the problem as and when it occurs, or taking a more proactive stance.

One company that’s gone for the latter option is BT. The telecoms giant’s BT Workstyle is one of the biggest flexible working projects in Europe, involving almost 80,000 staff, 14,000 of whom work from home. The company uses an impressive list of technologies to enable its employees to take up flexible working, with everything from dial-up to 3G and Wi-Fi connections supported and all traffic carried using advanced encryption standard (AES) and triple data encryption standard (3DES) to ensure security. Home-based employees can plug into the BT network using the BT iDisk platform which requires an ActivCard remote access token. The token confirms a user’s identity and gives access to permitted applications. BlackBerry devices, VoIP, hotdesking and on-premise laptop access are also granted.

Establishing a relationship with key stakeholders was important. David Dunbar, head of Workstyle at BT Global Services, says: “By taking a holistic approach across IT, HR and property, we delivered some impressive benefits.”

One of these benefits was bringing the BT intranet to remote workers. Access to information is crucial to any business and making employees feel they remain part of the organisation is a key element of successful homeworking. Dunbar says: “The intranet was critical, not only in ensuring that people could keep in contact with colleagues but also in communicating with the heart of the business and reinforcing BT values, so that remote employees still felt part of the BT family.”

Making people feel a valued part of the company and keeping them motivated was also a concern of Mark Sutton, IT director of Freedom Direct, one of the UK’s largest independent travel agents. The company, which is based in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, took the decision to increase homeworking six years ago when the proportion of staff working from home was about 10 per cent. Today, a quarter of employees work full-time from home, which, for some staff, means as far away as Australia.

Home and away

Providing the right support for remote staff was critical to making the flexible approach work. “Our homeworkers have inductions and training at head office and are included in staff meetings and company outings to help them feel part of the team,” Sutton says.

With homeworking and remote working there is always the risk of staff becoming disengaged from the company’s aims. Freedom Direct addressed this problem by providing dedicated managers and IT personnel specifically assigned to deal with remote staff. “If you don’t allocate responsibility for support, there’s a risk that home workers’ needs get sidelined, which can be demotivating,” explains Sutton.

Another company to have adopted flexible working is networking firm Avaya. The company was keen to lower costs, get a better return on investment and improve working conditions and productivity. After a study to find what people needed, the company decided to pre-empt government regulations and offer the working terms to all 900 of its UK employees.

What is the right to request?

The right to request flexible working was introduced in 2003 and updated in 2007. It currently applies to parents or carers and spouses of parents or carers of children under the age of six (or 18 if the child is disabled) and to carers of certain adults. In this last case, the employee must be caring for a spouse, partner or relative, or living in the same house as the adult cared for.

Suggestions to extend the right to all parents of children under the age of 16 could become law next April. The right to request places an obligation on an employer to consider any such request seriously. A simple “no” isn’t enough – there has to be a valid business case as to why flexible work is not an option for the employee concerned. The type of work the employee does might not be suited to homeworking, for example.

The onus is on the employee to provide a comprehensive application well in advance of when they want it to take effect.

The Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) has identified eight business grounds for refusing a request. These are:

The burden of additional costs;
A detrimental effect on the company’s ability to meet customer demand;
The inability to reorganise work among existing staff;
The inability to recruit additional staff;
A detrimental impact on quality;
A detrimental impact on performance;
Insufficiency of work during the periods the employee proposes to work;
Planned structural changes.

Employees who aren’t eligible for the right can request flexible working and it is up to the employer whether or not to consider it. However, there are many potential benefits to both employer and employee when flexible working is taken seriously.

Martyn Lambert, Avaya’s vice president of marketing, acknowledges the importance of a sense of inclusion and says the company learned as it went along that workers appreciate mixing time at home with time in the office. Avaya now offers two options: staff can work core hours in the office (11am to 3pm in order to do the school run or other regular tasks) and the rest at home, or spend some days in the -office and some at home.

Lambert says: “Avaya staff never spend more than two consecutive days working from home. They might spend two days at home, one day in the office and then two days at home again.” More than this and it’s “too solitary – cabin fever sets in”, he believes.

The flipside of keeping staff motivated is monitoring their performance: what happens when workers are over or underworked or their remote work simply isn’t up to scratch?

Freedom Direct’s homeworking management team monitors remote staff. Freedom’s Sutton worked with Totem Communications to develop an inbound call-handling system, which knits homeworkers into the company’s call-centre operation. According to Sutton, this helps the company tune into calls and check which home workers are logged on or off. It also helps in measuring productivity against targets.

Freedom Direct also uses a VoIP service. This, says Sutton, allows the company to monitor homeworkers’ calls and record them for training and quality-control purposes. “This was an option that was previously only available for call-centre staff,” he says.

Homeworkers are given objectives and metrics, against which they are monitored every six months. “We don’t clock people on and off in the office,” says Lambert. Instead, it uses Microsoft Office Communicator to monitor who is online. In time it will bring online Microsoft’s presence detection server that will “take things to the next level”, according to Lambert, allowing managers to see not only who is online or offline but also who is temporarily unavailable.

Overworking is sometimes cited as an issue with homeworking as staff can sometimes overcompensate for not being in an office by enduring long hours. The Avaya system will give managers a way to spot employees who are overdoing things.

Avaya found that workers must be able to “mimic the office environment”, Lambert says, but this raises security issues. Laptops are targets for thieves and Avaya has rigidly enforced security measures to protect data. Users have a system logon and a network log-on, which requires encrypted access to the virtual private network (VPN) and has to be changed monthly. Failure to do so means being locked out of the system and requires a call to IT. Also, files are archived onto the central server rather than being saved on individual machines.

BT acknowledges that security must be built in from the start. In addition to the ActivCard remote access token to authenticate user identities, laptop users connect to the BT network using an IPSec VPN connection that manages network permissions using randomly generated passwords. Laptops can be backed up remotely using BT’s Datasure service so that, if information is lost, users can dial into the Datasure server from a different machine and download data.

Another potential problem area is health and safety as an employer has the same responsibilities towards homeworkers as office-based employees. This might mean carrying out risk assessments in employees’ homes, ensuring that any equipment used there is fit for purpose and workers know how to use it properly, making sure lighting levels are good enough and that there are no trailing cables – in fact much the same rigmarole as in an office. Also, homeworkers who use computers regularly are entitled to have their eye tests paid for by the company.

Avaya’s Lambert acknowledges that part of providing a safe environment for homeworkers includes insurance. Avaya’s flexible-working package aims to clone the office environment in the home, and this includes extending insurance to cover homeworkers.

Despite the complexities of all this, the advantages to employers, even beyond restoring work-life balance to staff, are clear. By 2005, BT was saving more than £725m per year through reductions in its property portfolio. The company also found that homeworkers were 20 per cent more productive than their office-based counterparts and took 63 per cent less time off sick. Additionally, staff retention following maternity leave was 99 per cent, compared to a UK average of 47 per cent, saving the company another £7.4m per year.

Avaya’s Lambert identifies the main benefits of flexible working as reduced real estate (Avaya has saved about one third), reduction on travel time and costs, happier staff and the ability to draw on a wider talent pool.

“We have people from God’s own country, Wales, people who work from Newport or Cardiff and come into Guildford maybe once a month,” says Lambert, himself a Welshman, obviously.

This list of advantages is backed up by a Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) study -revealed that 49 per cent of companies that had introduced flexible working reported greater productivity.

Give and take

Productivity, motivation and control come high up in Andy Middleton’s list of benefits gained from flexible working. Middleton, managing director of adventure training firm TYF Group, says he took the decision to introduce flexible working several years ago. He says: “We decided to rethink and adapt our policies to meet employees’ needs rather than expecting staff to fit their lives around us.”

Middleton admits that investing in flexible working practices can be costly, but he says that it’s all been worth it. “We have a highly motivated workforce who, through good communication, understand the impact of their actions on the company balance sheet and take responsibility for their working hours.”

And the outcome? “We have excellent staff loyalty, high productivity and flexible working has enhanced our reputation with customers too.”

Not all employers have welcomed the extension to the right to request flexible working, however. Some, especially smaller employers, think they will struggle to cope.

Government inaction

For many years experts and lobby groups have called on the British government to act in support of remote working. They argue that incentives for companies that promote teleworking (or disincentives to stop them forcing staff to work 9-5 hours in offices) could do much to reduce traffic, lessen the burden on public transport, improve the ecology, lead to improved work-life balance and lessen the need for new buildings.

However, so far, the government’s response has been deafening in its silence. Some watchers believe that this is because the government does not want to upset construction companies, drivers, energy giants and other vested interests. Others merely suggest that politicians lack sufficient understanding of technology.

The Home Computing Initiative was the one major scheme that the Blair government introduced to encourage the purchase of computers, but the project, which allowed staff to buy PCs for domestic use via their employers and on generous terms, ended in 2006. The cancellation, by then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, led to general consternation and accusations that the government had not done enough to explain its actions or provide warnings of imminent change. The government said that some buyers had exploited loopholes to purchase consumer goods items such as MP3 players.

Manufacturing, engineering and technology organisation the EEF, which represents more than 6000 companies, warned that employers could end up refusing requests from workers if they have to choose between large numbers of competing claims. This is despite the DBERR saying that 91 per cent of workplaces that received flexible working requests in the last year had approved them.

But veterans such as BT claim that flexible-working solutions are likely to become more important as the workplace adapts to a fast-changing and often unpredictable market. This is hard to argue against. The message would appear to be clear: firms that allow and encourage flexible working are well placed to keep staff onside and reduce costs. Getting the ICT infrastructure to support that aim should be a focus for CIO offices everywhere.

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