UK bosses are missing out on the huge benefits that flexible working can bring to their businesses, explains Kate Milner, WebEx Communications.
From October 1 this year, the right to request flexible working hours is extended to carers of adults in the UK, reflecting the dramatic shift in working patterns that UK employees have undergone in the last decade. Increased living costs mean that more people have to - and indeed want to - work, particularly women who now form almost half of the UK’s workforce.
As a result, the right to request flexible working has become an integral part of UK law, and parents with children under the age of six have been able to request flexible hours since 2003. Yet many businesses are failing to educate their staff on flexible working rights, or indeed encourage it. According to research we conducted recently, 59 per cent of the UK's working parents are unaware of their right to request a flexible working scheme. Even more of a concern, our research revealed a gender gap in the UK's flexible working practices, with almost half (47 per cent) of working mothers reporting a rigid attitude to working hours from their employers. Furthermore, 70 per cent of women are not given the option to work from home, in comparison to 59 per cent of men.
It seems the need for organisations to adapt to a change in working patterns has been largely ignored, although the technology to enable flexible working is now reliable, cost-effective and widely available. As a result, working parents are forever struggling to juggle the demands of work and home and are often left feeling unable to do either 'job' properly.
In too many organisations, a culture of old-fashioned long hours and presenteeism still prevails and is costing the UK dearly. Government figures show that despite working the longest hours in Europe, our productivity levels are one of the lowest, and stress-related sickness costs British business around £12 billion every year. UK employees are crying out for more flexibility on how and where they work, and yet employers are clinging to a Victorian desk-bound working ethic. UK organisations must wake up to the fact that flexible working makes good business sense for both employers and employees.
Flexible working is not the latest gimmick in working practices, but a serious trend that has emerged from the need to cope better with the demands of modern society. The benefits of flexible working for employees, particularly working parents, are clear. They can be more in control of their workloads, avoid the stress of commuting at peak times and achieve a better work-life balance, thus boosting their morale and their productivity levels.
But flexible working doesn't just make sense for working parents, it benefits their employers too. Our survey showed that if British businesses allowed their staff just one day of flexible working a week, the nation could potentially gain around 38.8 million working days a year. It also allows organisations to attract and retain a skilled, highly motivated and more diverse workforce. As the UK strives to maintain its competitiveness in the face of global competition, the current lack of options for parents who want to work is reducing the skilled pool of labour available and creating extra costs. For example, if just 10 per cent of non-working mothers returned to work after maternity leave, employers could save up to £39 million a year in recruitment costs alone and reduce turnover rates.
Many businesses are reluctant to introduce flexible working practices because they are concerned about the practical implications for their business. However, the incredible advance of the Internet and mobile technology over the last ten years, coupled with the demand for more cost-effective and efficient ways of operating, means that flexible working practices have never been easier to implement.
The proliferation of mobile communications now available make it easier for employees to make better use of 'dead time', such as their daily commute, allowing them to work when they want, wherever they want. And now, virtual, collaborative communications, such as web meetings and online workspaces, are coming to the fore, giving parents, and indeed other employees, the tools to truly embrace flexible working practices.
Increasingly businesses are investing in remote access technologies to enable employees to work as effectively from home as from the office. Specifically designed to make working from home easier and more cost effective, a WebOffice provides business with a 'virtual office' located on the internet. Remote workers - from anywhere in the world - can then collaborate over the web and share documents, calendars and databases, assign and track tasks and hold online meetings.
And working from home has other important knock-on effects. For employees, it cuts out the journey to work and its associated costs at a time when British workers are spending more time and money than ever travelling to and from the office. The national daily commute is also a major cause of environmental pollution. Offering staff the chance to work from home one day a week would help reduce carbon emissions as well as giving staff a day off from commuter [***], allowing them to work more efficiently.
Our research shows that 55 per cent of parents have missed an important family occasion due to work, yet nearly half believe the clash could have been prevented with the right technology. It also revealed that:
- One in three workers would be prepared to contribute towards flexible working technologies from their own pockets
- One in four would sacrifice their annual pay rise for the chance to work from home for one day a week
- One in ten would voluntarily use the time saved on commuting to do more work
Flexible working is high on the employee agenda, but it now needs to move up the priority list for employers. All in all, it makes good business sense and, enabled by virtual and mobile technology, could be the answer to a happier, more productive workforce. Although there are initial cost implications for businesses, the payback is definitely worthwhile with 84 per cent of managers stating their flexible working arrangements were cost effective according to the Workplace Employment Relations Survey, 2004.
If UK plc wants to remain competitive, it should stop clinging to the old-world convention of office working. Adopting a less rigid approach, and embracing 'virtual' technology, will not only increase productivity, but also boost morale. Giving staff the choice about where, when and how they work will allow them to spend more time with their families, creating a healthier work / life balance.
Here are my top tips for successfully implementing flexible working to your business:
- Introduce flexible working as part of the business culture and ensure employees are aware it is available and how it can benefit them.
- Provide your employees with a range of flexible working options to best suit them and your business, rather than using a 'one size fits all approach'
- Take advantage of 'virtual' technology to make flexible working cost-effective, easy to manage, and more efficient
- Draft a policy document for employees working from home so that they know the rules
- Agree a percentage of time that employees can work from home
- Monitor your flexible working policies on a regular basis to ensure that they are happening effectively