Social and environmental factors mean companies will have to think much more creatively about how their employees work.

Future flexibility at work

The stern review, a recent UK analysis of global warming, recommended investment, regulation, taxation and technical solutions. However, it omitted a much more effective solution if we can distance ourselves from working habits acquired over the last 200 years. "If employers are prepared to be more flexible about when and where work is performed," says Peter Thomson, director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College, "they can significantly reduce the commuting endured by their employees. If they are also prepared to embrace technologies such as video conferencing, they can save the cost and time of business travel, improve business results and add to their green credentials."

Peter Thomson - former head of personnel at Digital Equipment for Northern Europe, where he developed new working practices and pioneered the use of technology for flexible working - founded the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College in l992 as a focal centre to bring together others interested in new work patterns. "We know that transport is one of the major causes of carbon emissions," he says, "and that it is mainly associated with people at work, both commuting and business travel.

"But why do we have people sitting in gridlocked traffic or crammed into public transport, all trying to get to work at the same time, polluting the planet and getting stressed out in the process? We have people travelling to see others face-to-face when there are technologies available that can substitute for a high percentage of those meetings and save wasted time as well as carbon."

The office technology is there already, he claims, "to allow people to work at a distance and communicate effectively without travelling. So why do we still insist that people travel to work and in many cases sit at a desk all day when they could do much of their work from a distance electronically? "Up to 50 per cent of jobs can be done from home - more if we include the 20 per cent of us who spend some part of the week working at home. We expect retailers to operate extended hours, but we still have a high percentage of information workers on a 9 to 5 Monday to Friday routine.  The problem is bad management."

Despite evidence showing that people who work flexible hours are more productive, according to a BT survey - and despite cost savings, a reduction in staff turnover and a reduction in absenteeism - managers are still reluctant to let go of current work practices. The new focus on global warming should be a wake-up call to employers to review their working practices.

If employers can replace half of their face-to-face meetings with audio or video conferencing, they will save the time and cost of unnecessary travel and find the time spent in meetings reduced. But to do this, Peter Thomson argues, "managers will have to step outside their comfort zone of watching over people while they work and empower employees to manage their own work pattern. Introducing a motivational environment that encourages productive work, not long hours, should help."

Is flexible working really a viable proposition for most office workers? "In any organisation there is a limit to the flexibility for employees without the business suffering. Even so it's good business sense to offer all employees the right to request flexible working now and not be forced into it by some future legislation." The UK's Equal Opportunities Commission agrees. In its report ‘Working outside the Box', it argues that it's time to break free from the shackles of 20th century work-styles that create more stress related problems and illnesses and create traffic congestion and environmental damage.

Flexible working is seen as the key to overcoming these problems. A significant finding in the report is that 50 per cent of adults say they would like to work more flexible hours. Employers and government are responding, but so far too slowly, according to the report. Key recommendations are:

  • the government needs to develop a strategy to end leakage of skills and help people reuse their skills;
  • employers should make their staff aware of flexible working options, discuss them and train their managers to deliver them;
  • finally the government should extend the current statutory right to request flexible work for everyone.

At the launch of the report strong backing for more flexible working came from David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, who told the EOC that bosses should look more favourably on flexible E
working for all employees, particularly women with children, people over normal retirement age and the disabled seeking a return to work. Human capital, he said, is the natural resource of 2lst century Britain. Flexible working is good for companies, good for the economy and good for society as a whole.

If the employee can show that his or her job can be done with a different pattern of work, why wouldn't every employer offer this to every employee, asks Peter Thomson. "By definition, giving all employees the opportunity to work flexibly will only be done if the job doesn't suffer and the employer can define and monitor this."

Not just for families

Further support for flexible working came at the June launch of a report by the CIPD and British Chamber of Commerce, ‘Flexible Working - Good Business'. The report reinforces the point that, says Peter Thomson, "new ways of working are not just family friendly but also good for the bottom line. The problem is that the government has promoted flexible working as ‘family-friendly' and consequently it is seen by many employers as some sort of employee benefit, which is an imposition on the business. If they were to promote it as ‘business-friendly' and a way of increasing productivity, reducing employee turnover and solving absenteeism problems it would be taken more seriously by employers."

Not everyone agrees. While remote working has become increasingly popular with some private and public sector employers, a survey of international graduates by PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that only 5 per cent think they will be working increasingly from home in the future. Among UK graduates the proportion is even less. PwC makes the point that "you can't underplay the social impact of being in the office and the power of having people working in teams face-to-face. That creativity is not easy to replicate on the Internet."

Peter Thomson agrees that young people in particular like going to the office to mix with others and don't want to be isolated at home. However, he says, "work is becoming location independent and people are choosing to work in a location that best suits their lifestyle. People with family commitments want to be able to fit work around their domestic duties rather than the other way round."

He also says that people often need to work together in teams to bounce ideas off each other, but says "look at how young people are using technology to substitute face-to-face meetings. We now have Social Media such as Facebook and YouTube, people are using blogs and wikis to share ideas and we are just discovering the power of video meetings through applications such as Skype and Messenger."

Can people work independently? "We have a presenteeism culture in the UK," Peter Thomson argues, "that not only expects people to be at their desk and to be seen to be working, but also puts us at the top of the league in working hours, yet well down the list in productivity. The reason is that managers struggle to define their workers' output and therefore have to manage by input.

"To be sure that people are working they have to be seen at their desks. Poor managers do not trust their employees to manage their own time and place of work; they want to show they are in control. Good managers will genuinely empower their employees and give them the freedom to manage their own work-life balance. In the end it comes down to trust between manager and employee."

The new focus on global warming should be a wake-up call to all employers to review their working practices. First, why do we need so many meetings that involve one or two hours' travel when we can see the people involved on a screen in our offices?  Second, if employees can spend one day a week working from home or perhaps work four longer days and take the fifth off, it's immediately possible to save 20 per cent of the carbon emissions from commuting, at least where cars are used. Similarly, if employers can replace half their face-to-face meetings with audio or video conferences they will save the time and cost of unnecessary travel and less time and cost spent on meetings.

Another issue highlighted by the Future Work Forum: why can't employers encourage older employees to stay on and transition slowly to retirement over a number of years? Isn't it ridiculous to say that one day before someone's 60th or 65th birthday they are fully employed and one day later they are no longer of any use - because we have a rigid view of work? Why not enable a few people to work one or two days a week right up to their 80th or 90th birthday if they wish?

As Peter Thomson points out the rigid boundaries between home and work are breaking down for people in the middle of their working lives and also at both ends. "Young people expect to have a gap year before or after university and don't want to rush into work straight from education. They may also want to take a gap year in their mid to late twenties before settling down to have a family. Then at the other end of working life they want to increase their leisure time but still keep in gainful employment well into the traditional years of retirement. Some of this has been dictated by the collapse of pension schemes but in many cases it is simply a wish to gain the satisfaction of doing meaningful work instead of being pushed onto the scrap-heap of worn out workers."

Wilf Altman is a business writer, consultant and co-author (alongside Professor Gary Cooper CBE and Andrew Garner) of ‘FutureWork', published by Texture Publishing. To find out more about the Future Work Forum visit: www.henleymc.ac.uk/henleyres03.nsf/pages/fwf

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