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Flexible Working: Reaping the Benefits

Dr David J. Skyrme

Synopsis of a Presentation given at the Industrial Society Seminar 'The Best of Both Worlds - How Teleworking or Distance Working can Benefit Your Organisation', 30 September 1993. A fuller paper covering similar topics is Distance Working: The Corporate Perspective.


Background

The title reflects the fact that teleworking should be seen as part of a wider movement towards flexible working within organisations. The competitive business environment is creating significant challenges for most organisations in the 1990s. Among the most significant are:

  • Pressures on overhead costs, especially fixed costs e.g. people and property
  • Need to increase employee productivity
  • Emphasis on customer and market orientation e.g. offering 'round-the-clock' service
  • Simplification of business processes
  • The need for increased organisation flexibility and responsivenes
  • Environmental concerns and legislation (e.g. air quality laws and reduction of commuting by cars)

Flexible working is one response to these challenges.

Flexible Working

Many forms of flexible working exist. Broadly they can be defined in the following categories:

  • Non-full time working
  • Contracted out work
  • Career breaks
  • Flexible Offices
  • Geographically dispersed work teams
  • Teleworking and homeworking

Not that these categories reflect flexibility of work contract and flexibility of work location and time. Emphasis on customer and market orientation e.g. offering 'round-the-clock' service

Led to 'People for the 90s' programme - investigation of links between business-IT-organisation strategies.

Benefits of Flexible Working

There are now many well documented cases of the benefits of flexible working. Teleworking, particularly when combined with flexible offices and IT enhanced working over geographic boundaries, offers many advantages:

To organisation strategic goals:

    Time-to-market for new products
  • Round-the-clock customer service
  • Rapid response task forces
  • Access to global expertise
  • Ad-hoc project teams for sales bids etc.

To organisational efficiency and effectiveness:

  • Cost saving: office space
  • Better space utilisation
  • Improved working environment
  • Productivity improvement (20-40%)
  • Employee retention and motivation
  • Out of hours cover

To the individual:

  • Suits domestic and lifestyle needs
  • Time and work pattern flexibility
  • Improved effectiveness (work environment matched to work)
  • Sense of control over work environment
  • Improved quality of working life

To society at large:

  • Reduced traffic and pollution
  • More prosperity in rural areas
  • Employment opportunities for disabled
  • Increasing sense of community focus

The Digital Experience

Digital in the UK provides a good example of flexible working in practice. The formal programme arose as a direct result of an organisational response to the long term strategic business plan. An initiative 'People for the '90s', was created to investigate:

  • Future skill needs
  • Labour Supply
  • Organisational Culture
  • Impact of IT on Organisations

This led to the question :"how can we get work done more effectively". Flexible work practices was seen as a viable solution.

Several pilot projects were initiated (1989-90) in various sized groups (13-130) along these lines:

  • Management team introduced to vision and concepts
  • Outline proposal, agreement to pilot
  • Initial data gathering
  • Participative work-shops (group design work environments)
  • Mix of fixed and flexible space in offices
  • Growing mix of location independent work and teleworking
  • Some people home based, others office based (both telework some of the time)

These provided sufficient confidence and knowledge to do such projects on a larger scale. The opportunity arose out of a misfortune that was turned into an opportunity.

Scaling up - The Crescent

This, Digital's newest office burnt to ground in March 1990. But business systems were fully operational again within 48 hours; people relocated (or worked from home) within 14 days. Realisation:

  • IT and telecomms infrastructure provides resilience
  • Easy access to IT facilities from multiple locations
  • An opportunity to scale up flexible working.

Features of the New Crescent:

  • an 'intelligent' building (integration of many services)
  • hosts 700 people in 450 work places
  • consolidation of office space
  • growing number telework
  • computer integrated telephony
  • location independent working within building
  • integrated message handling (terminal, mobile, home, phone)

Vision:

  • the virtual office
  • location independent working (even globally)
  • access to neighbourhood facilities (e.g. business centres, telecottages)

Results:

  • over #163;2m a year saving in office costs
  • improved communications
  • 'organisation change proof' environment

Lessons

Human and Social Factors are most important:

  • employee involvement from the outset
  • treat as part of change management programme
  • use OD consultants
  • teams design own work environment within constraints
  • encourage creative thinking
  • clarify purpose of each piece of work (why do this?)

Technology:

  • need a well developed infrastructure
  • users need help with choices for home office
  • usability issues
  • support issues (especially out of hours)

Work Management:

  • provide guidance and workshops on...
  • organising communications handling
  • managing information, work and work flow
  • health and safety, legal etc.
  • managing by output (not input)
  • training for managers (enabling not controlling)

Social and Psychological:

  • career concerns (out of sight, out of mind)
  • affiliation needs
  • home/work boundary
  • peer relationships (between home and office based, or those selected to telework and those not)

Implementation must therefore follow an integrated multi-disciplinary approach and take account of known critical success factors that seem to recur in the most successful implementations.

The Future - Limits and Challenges

As teleworking increases a number of questions arise as to what extent changes are possible and practical:

  • Who will telework, who will not?
  • If an office today has one work-space per 2 people, is 1:20 achievable?
  • Will conventional 'jobs' disappear, to be replaced by contracts for work?
  • Will networks of individuals/small businesses replace large corporations?
  • How global is the labour marketplace? Will work migrate to the new world?

There are many interesting challenges to address.

Summary

  • Benefits are significant, but don't come without hard work!
  • Teleworking should not be viewed in isolation ..
  • Not a simple home or office split
  • Part of a wider flexible work programme
  • In turn part of an organisation and business strategy

Digital experience is an ongoing learning process:

  • Initial research
  • Use of multi-disciplinary programme team
  • Started with pilots.. evolved and grew
  • Independent advisers to provide objective review
  • Now offer expertise to customers (a consultancy service)
  • The technology exists, but do the management capabilities?

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