Technology helps businesses flex

Forget nine to five - in the 21st century successful businesses need to be far less rigid, writes Nick Gordon

If there’s one word that sums up the 21st-century workplace, it’s flexibility. And if there’s one facilitator for flexibility, it’s technology.

But flexibility comes in different shapes and sizes, and finding the right combination is critical to a happy and productive workforce.

First up is flexibility of time, sometimes better known as worklife balance. In 2007, a British Chambers of Commerce’s survey found that adopting flexible working improved recruitment and retention, created greater loyalty and commitment from employees, reduced employee stress, reduced absence and employee turnover, and enhanced a company’s reputation.

Fast-forward to today and it would seem the government agrees. Its recent Modern Workplaces consultation advocates extending the statutory right to request flexible working to all employees, rather than the current position where only parents and carers of adults can do so.

A report by the think-tank Demos, Reinventing the Workplace, backs the government’s proposals, arguing that “the key question is not whether businesses can afford flexible working arrangements, but whether in the 21st century countries like Britain can afford to forego them”.

It found that 91 per cent of offer at least one form of flexible working arrangement and that 83 per cent of requests for flexible working are approved. Yet of firms that currently do not offer any form of flexible working, 92 per cent said they were unlikely to start offering it in the next two years.

But working hours is only one form of flexibility; the other and related form is flexibility of place, and it is this that technology has made possible. Networked computing, cheaper telecoms, mobile telephony – these all contribute to the ability to work from anywhere, not just from home.

It involves a move from a command-and-control style of management to trust and empowerment

Cloud computing is key to remote working, allowing multiple employees to work on the same project in real time even though geographically spread.

British Telecom was one of the first companies to embrace teleworking, launching its version in out of 92,000 employees. The company argues that, on average, its homeworkers save it around £6,000 a year, are 20 per cent more productive and take fewer sick days.

But remote working requires different managerial skills, says Vanessa Robinson, head of HR practice development at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “It involves a move from a command-and-control style of management to one based on trust and empowerment. Performance measures also need to be more clearly output focussed.

“Managers and leaders need to be aware that, at times, people who work remotely may feel isolated from their organisation, so efforts need to be made to keep in touch, to keep them engaged with what’s going on in the organisation and their team.”

That can be done through one-to-one telephone calls and intranet discussion groups, as well as occasional face-to-face meetings. Technology such as web-based cameras or real-time video conferencing help keep staff engaged with colleagues, whether at the office or the other side of the world. An internal social network can also help mimic the brief interactions that go on in any office.

As with any change, it is not easy to make the leap to flexible working. But those companies that are successful at bringing flexibility to the workplace will find it is one of the most useful tools in achieving maximum output from staff.