HRD Insight: Enterprise Rent-A-Car's Leigh Lafever-Ayer on flexible working

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This week is National Work-Life Week, which is intended to encourage both employers and their employees to think about how they can strike a better work-life balance.

One popular flexible working method is home-working and people who do so are reportedly less stressed and feel happier that they are getting the balance between the two right.
 
A recent survey by the Institute of Leadership Management also indicated that 43% of employers that tried flexible working programmes out during the Olympic Games were likely to continue down this route.
 
As a global company, home-working is not new to us at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. But while we already have more than 800 employees who do so in the US, it is a much more recent phenomenon here in the UK.
 
The reason for this situation is based in our business model. In the UK, we have a network of over 360 local branches – we have one within 10 miles of more than 90% of the UK population - and the majority of our employees are based at one of them.
 
But the reality of retail is that you have to be in the shop. So until recently, home-working has not been something that we’ve considered at a corporate level.
 
We know that many organisations are pushed this way by employees keen to have more flexibility in their lives.But we were prompted to look at it because our business was growing and we were running out of space at our administrative offices.
 
Commercial decision
 
The situation was particularly acute at our Business Support centre in Aldershot where our call centre team handles customer reservations and bookings.
 
We needed to expand the team, which would potentially mean taking on more space, and so we wondered whether home-working might provide a good alternative for everyone involved.
 
But because ultimately the decision had to be a commercial one, we analysed the cost of setting an employee up at home versus the cost of having an employee in the office. The results were startling.
 
Setting someone up at home generates a one-off cost of £1,500, along with minor on-going costs for telephone usage and so forth after that. But each office-based worker costs the company about £5,000 per year. So potentially, we were looking at saving £3,500 per staff member in the first year alone, followed by more over time.
 
Based on this analysis, we decided to pilot a home-working programme for members of our national reservations department.
 
And perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that call centre staff can be just as effective working from home as they can being based in the office. In fact, we have experienced a dramatic reduction in absenteeism and disciplinary issues, while seeing improvements in punctuality and productivity.
 
As a result, our plan is to transform the pilot project into a long-term programme. This means that the pilot project manager has now become the new home-working team supervisor and, as and when any office-based workers leave, we recruit a home-working replacement.
 
Ups and downs
 
Over time, the aim is to have about half of the entire reservations department employed as home workers.
 
But there are certain considerations when setting up a home-working initiative as we discovered from the pilot. Key to success is the implementation of strong internal communications systems.
 
This means that our home workers have a weekly catch-up over the phone with their manager as well as a monthly phone-based appraisal, which they can then listen back to at a later date. Virtual team meetings are likewise held using online conferencing software.
 
But barring a few company events and exceptional circumstances (for example, serious technology failures or disciplinary issues), home workers are never seen at the office. However, we appreciated that this set-up could lead to a sense of isolation for individual members of the team.
 
Therefore, in order to try and ensure that a sense of team spirit was preserved, systems were implemented in such a way as to allow home workers to see who else is online at any given time and to communicate with them using internal instant messaging software and email.
 
As to why the reservations department was chosen to pioneer home-working, it was because personnel work unsocial hours, which includes early shifts.
 
They also need to be flexible in managing peak time demands. Now, however, if a spike in demand takes place, we can send home workers a text asking if they can log on to help deal with it. As an incentive to do so, they are offered overtime pay and also receive special recognition from their team supervisor.
 
Ringing endorsement
 
But this shift has already garnered a positive response from our customers, who say there has been a noticeable difference in our ability to respond quickly.
 
And being able to measure the success of the scheme in output terms was, of course, vital in understanding whether it had worked or not overall. It turned out to be a straightforward proposition, however, because the role of home workers is no different to those in the office and so the same metrics could be employed.
 
Moreover, the use of technology makes behaviour easier to track – we can see when every worker logs on to begin their shift and details of all of the calls that they make or receive during a session are logged and recorded as standard.
 
A key benefit of the programme in HR terms, meanwhile, has been the boost to employee retention levels. While the average market retention rate for call centre staff is between 60% and 65% per cent, our office-based team is currently at 65%, rising to 71% overall for full-time staff.
 
But the figure jumps even higher to 81% among home workers which, we believe, will ultimately save the company in terms of future recruitment costs and improve the quality of our service.
 
In addition, while office-based call centre roles have tended to attract school or college leavers, we now a wider range of candidates applying for jobs within the team, which include more mature and experienced people.
 
What this all means is that our home-working programme has been a huge success thus far and, therefore, we can only give a ringing endorsement to the benefits of adopting a more flexible approach to employment.
 

Leigh Lafever-Ayer is Enterprise Rent-A-Car's HR director for the UK and Ireland.

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