Will CIOs increasingly have to accommodate demands from their organisations to support a wide variety of working styles?

That could mean the ability to massively stagger their work times, work more remotely or at home and encompass complex sets of hours and compensation schemes. The answer, claim supporters of what we used to call teleworking and now dub flexible working, is a resounding yes. The same technology – the net and broadband buttressed by wireless – that lets us offshore also lets us support greater out of office interaction by our domestic staff.

There is a growing trend that suggests, increasingly, UK staff do not want to work the nine to five grind. The reasons are simple: work-life balance concerns – and supporting legislation; the hideousness of many people’s commutes; different attitudes to work and productivity; plus a general feeling that we give enough to the company as it is and now we want something back. These and other factors have been picked up on by something called The Work Wise campaign. It is a campaigning group which aims to try and get UK organisations to “help create a ‘smarter’ working Britain” by practises such as flexible working, mobile working, remote working and working from home. Work Wise UK is organised by the IT Forum Foundation in association with BT and approved by the British Chambers of Commerce, the CBI, The Future Work Forum (Henley Management College) and the TUC.

The project kicked off via a conference in early May, which encouraged companies to try flexible working for a week to see if they liked it. It is now moving into a three-year initiative with government, business and union support – all to encourage the widespread adoption of smarter working practises across the UK. The stated, though surely unrealistic target, is to increase the number of people currently enjoying smarter working from 3.1 million to 14m – which is half the working population – by 2009.

Vested interests

However, there are some problems with the Work Wise approach – or at least questions which it raises. The first is the link with BT.

“We are a key supporter of this because we feel it can only be good for the UK economy to promote more flexible ways of working and encourage more diverse recruitment among groups like lone parents and people who live in remote areas who otherwise would be excluded,” says Caroline Waters, BT’s director of people and policies. She highlights the impact such policies have had on her organisation, saying 70 per cent of BT employees now work flexibly and that 10 per cent of its workforce are now home based.

BT claims this has yielded an average productivity increase of around 20 per cent as a result and believes an extra £7m has been delivered back to the bottom-line using this
approach. Other attractive benefits, she says, are that every 12 months of flexible working saves its employees the equivalent of 1,800 years commuting and 54,000 tonnes of CO2 were not pumped into the atmosphere.

Excellent stuff – but of course BT has an agenda here: it wants to productise this stuff and sell it to CIOs at some point in the near future, as a managed service or consultancy to drive flexible working. Which is fine – but claims that this could automatically work for your organisation should be carefully evaluated as the economies of scale a 100,000-plus organisation can achieve may not be easily translatable into different situations.

A second point is that some critics doubt that the Work Wise idea is anything like radical enough. One such is business and HR productivity consultancy JBA. “This is a laudable campaign, but the request to let staff and employers ‘try out’ smarter working practises for a week is not a good idea,” says its chairman John Blackwell.

“Best practise and wise counsel always say that to be sustainable and have any chance of succeeding, smarter, or as we prefer, more effective, working practises must be measurable. You’ve got to answer for both parties ‘what’s in it for me’ and launching into an ad hoc, unplanned trial for a week is not advised.”

Empty offices

He is also sceptical about some of the Work Wise suggestions in the May campaign. These included asking managers to let staff come in either an hour later or an hour earlier, with a reciprocal hour shift at the end of the day.

It also allows them to take a half hour lunch break each day and then leave at 3pm on the last day of the week, encouraging the majority to work at home on Friday. “To achieve either of the first two ideas would demand a restructuring of working patterns to realise any gains. The third idea means there would be a barren office on Friday and this wouldn’t be effective for those still using the office space.”

Remote working – the facts

The UK’s average working week is among the highest in Europe, with nearly 5m employees working, on average, an extra day a week. One in six employees works over 60 hours a week – an increase from one in eight in 2000.

According to the Office of National Statistics in its October 2005 Labour Market Trends report, 11 per cent of the total UK workforce were homeworkers – defined as “people who work mainly in their own home, or in different places using home as a base”. This suggests some 5.4m employees – 2.2m men, 3.2m women – now work through some form of flexible working arrangement. There are over 7m people working part-time.

It is a growing trend. A 2004 government survey suggests homeworking has gone up from 1998’s 16 per cent to 28 per cent, job-sharing from 31 per cent to 41 per cent, and paid paternity leave shot up from 48 per cent to 92 per cent. Even so, just over half of UK employers with more than 10 staff operate flexible working hours – ranking us fourth in Europe behind Latvia and Sweden (65 per cent) and Finland (62 per cent).

It should be noted that JBA is not criticising the concept of remote or more flexible working but that it has to be something managers think about carefully before initiating.

As Blackwell says: “Our experience of over 400 organisations demonstrates there are huge gains from enhancing workplace effectiveness. However, to recycle the well-used Peter Drucker quote, ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; and if you can’t manage it, don’t do it’.”

The value of being flexible

Organisations that are finding value out of flexible working include as diverse a group as First Direct, Rotherham Borough Council and the public services union Unison.

The first, the online banking arm of HSBC, based in Leeds, has what its relationship manager Amanda Scott terms an ‘adult-to-adult’ approach with its IT staff. “There are core hours of Monday to Friday 10am to 3pm that must be worked but, beyond that, it depends on workload and project commitments,” she says.

“We are less interested in presence at the workplace than effectiveness. A lot depends on culture and trust but it works for us.”

Paul Briddock is head of information systems at RBT, the joint IT venture between BT and Rotherham, which encourages flexible working by its staff. “We’ve seen productivity rise and sick leave decline, true savings for us and gains by staff,” he says. “To be successful this has to be driven from the top of the organisation or it won’t work but it has given us measurable benefits.”

And for Unison, which has 1.5m members in the public services: “All our 1,400 HQ staff are offered this, which they find very useful as they are seldom in the office five days a week but are out in the field,” says Laurence Arterton its infrastructure and telecomms manager. “Good project management is key, though, as sometimes you need to get eight people to make sure they’ve all talked to each other,” he says.

What these and other organisations supportive of flexible working seem to be saying is that it is a great approach but needs measuring and close support. So by all means investigate it – indeed it may not be your choice to say no – but be careful about what exactly you are signing up to. Work wise, yes. Work casually, no.