Flexible working

Flexible working – the idea that you can work any time, any place – is an attractive one. But how do you make it work for your business?

The phrase “I’m working from home tomorrow” is what every employee wants to say, but it’s not always what an employer wants to hear. However, given the right IT and the right attitudes it could be something that gives your business and your employees a quantifiable boost.

According to the recent Flexibility Drives Productivity report from Regus, 76% of small businesses said they believed their company was more productive as a result of allowing employees more choice over where and when they work, and 68% of firms declare that flexible working has led to staff generating increased revenue.

In addition to greater revenues and better productivity, flexible working can also help owners and employees to achieve a better work-life balance. It allows businesses to function when staff are unable to get to work because of weather issues, transport problems or, as we will find in the next few months, the disruption from the Olympics. It enables businesses to reduce their infrastructure overheads and helps staff to feel more energised and motivated. Additionally, flexible working practices are also a key talent-retention tool.

While there are lots of positives to flexible working, there are also some potential problems. These can include a loss of control, breakdowns in communication, security concerns and management issues. However, with a little forethought, most of these problems can be avoided.

The main question for many businesses considering flexible working is how it will affect security. Allowing access to business data outside of the normal business network is a potential risk, but with the right set of security tools you can maintain security and keep your options flexible.

Virtual private network (VPN) connections allow you to create a secure encrypted network on the internet no matter where you are. With a VPN you could be on a wireless network in a café or on the end of a broadband connection at home, and your data would be secure. VPNs can either be built using software or using a dedicated hardware. They work by encrypting the data that travels over the internet, securing it from malicious attacks and interception.

Additionally you could also use secure dedicated internet applications such as Google Apps for Business, Dropbox, Box, or SalesForce, which allow you to securely create, edit and share data across the internet using Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption. SSL is the same security system that is normally used to encrypt your credit card details when you buy goods on the internet.

The next question most employers have is, “Will it really improve my work-life balance?” The Regus report found that over half of workers (58%) globally declare that they feel healthier as a result of flexible working. A side-effect of this is that employees will enjoy their jobs more and will be less likely to leave their company, with many of the respondents of the Regus research acknowledging flexible working as a “talent-retention tool.”

Managing staff who are not in the office is a key worry when it comes to flexible working. How do you know that they are working and not just in the garden sunbathing? And is it even possible to manage staff when you can’t ‘see’ them?

Most businesses who have been using flexible working would confirm that it’s perfectly possible, providing you are disciplined and that you use some of the IT tools designed to help make flexible working more effective.

A quick phone call or an email can let you know if someone is available and at their desk. However, both calls and emails involve you having to be organised and proactive. An easier way to tell if someone is present is to use something like instant messaging (IM). IM enables you to see a person’s status – or more than one person’s status – and enables you to ask quick questions without having to send an email or pick up the phone.

Unified communications (UC) is also becoming increasingly important for virtual teamwork. UC integrates into a single user interface services providing both real-time communication (voice telephony, IM, video conferencing) and non-real-time communication (voicemail, email SMS and fax). It incorporates call control to route calls/messages according to the selected preference or status of users, plus speech recognition and text-to-speech software to convert messages from voice to text or vice versa.

It can also integrate with business processes so that, for example, customer information can be called up or colleagues can be flagged and brought into conversations if they are available.

Managing remotely involves moving away from managing by presence to managing by outcome. To manage by outcome you need to be able to keep in contact with staff and be able to assess workloads and to monitor and measure performance. It is also important to have clear expectations about what is to be done and about communications within your business. It is also advisable to create some general rules and working practices. These include:

  • Having clear reporting structures
  • Creating shared calendars and schedules so that everyone is aware of where remote and office staff are and what times they are working
  • Using electronic document management systems to ensure work is easily accessible
  • Being flexible about flexible working – no individual should be disadvantaged by the choices of others, for example having to provide office cover after normal office hours, or attending evening meetings
  • Establishing etiquette for online communications and behaviour in virtual meetings

Lastly, changing to a flexible working culture should not be carried out in isolation. It involves working with all staff throughout the programme of making changes to workplaces, technologies and processes. 

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK