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June 30, 2015updated 22 Sep 2016 11:52am

Flexible working 1 year on: Has anything changed?

Is today's workforce truly mobilised?

By Alexander Sword

A year on from the introduction of the right to request flexible working in the UK and the verdict seems clear – it hasn’t really taken hold.

The initial implementation of the policy aimed to tap into a growing demand among workers for flexible working, as well as a huge increase in the technologies available to facilitate it.

Keith Poyser, EMEA MD of Accellion, said: "Today’s workforce has been mobilised. Workers are carrying smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Increasingly, they are working with cloud services, which are accessible equally in home offices, cafes, hotel lobbies, and cubicles.

"Conference calls and video sessions, which previously required special rooms and expensive equipment, are now available on every smartphone or tablet and are essentially free.

"Workers no longer have to congregate in an office for productive meetings or to collaborate. Today an "office" is simply wherever a connected mobile worker happens to be."

While flexible working has been possible to some degree since the advent of the internet, the quality and pervasiveness of broadband has pushed it into the mainstream. The advent of high capacity mobile data networks, in particular, has made it even easier, as Jordan Watson, FileMaker at We Know Data, argues:

"We can kiss goodbye to the days loitering around Starbucks to try and piggyback of its free wi-fi. We now have 3G and 4G connections almost everywhere, allowing us to access our files whenever and wherever we are.

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"If staff are connected and online, enterprises should have no fear in promoting a flexible working option for them."

The UK’s political landscape has also done much to promote and expand flexiblke working, with Stephan Schmitt, Chief Marketing Officer at Lumesse, explaining how the the current government is deserving of praise for its plans to proliferate superfast broadband:

"The recent election had a number of implications for flexible working, with the Conservatives’ promise to support the delivery of superfast broadband to provide coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2017, impacting the drive towards more flexible working.

"Additional pledges such as the ambition to deliver ultrafast broadband to nearly all UK premises as soon as practicable and the subsidising cost of installing superfast capable satellite services in the very hardest to reach areas will make it easier for HR to implement a flexible working culture within an organisation."

If the infrastructure is in shape, the demand from the workers is also clearly present. A Microsoft survey published today shows that 35 percent of workers feel more motivated when working remotely, with 36 percent stating that it makes them more productive. A further 52 percent claimed that flexible working makes their work/life balance easier to manage.

"A driver for flexible working is the need to attract real talent," says Kathryn Everest, Strategist for Communication and Collaboration, Jive Software. "Few people are looking for an opportunity with an inflexible employer and backward-facing work practices.

"We know that people do their best work when they are working in their workstyle [a term that Jive has coined to denote a person’s set of habits and preferences for how they work].

"The more choice and flexibility we provide to employees to think, create and produce, the more likely they are to do great work. Those that embrace people’s individual workstyles will have a competitive advantage."

On the employer side, flexible working is a useful way of cutting overheads. In some cases these costs will be outsourced to the employee, but in others it is a win-win, as Paul Statham, CEO of Condeco Software notes:

"Commercial property is incredibly expensive in the UK and worldwide rental prices are looking set to continue to increase.

"However, even though more organisations now encourage flexible and remote working, the average London company of around 1,000 staff could be wasting as much as £3 million per year on excess office space."

Despite the clear advantages, the Microsoft survey revealed that only 22 percent of small and medium business workers have requested flexible working as a direct result of the law. Additionally, 55 percent of office workers are still required to work from the office within working hours and 44 percent claim it is not possible to work remotely at all.

So why hasn’t flexible working taken off, if it is in such high demand and the options are there? Patrick Jocelyn, CMO at MeetingZone, argues that it is down to the culture and leadership of organisations:

"..flexible working technology like UC will only work if business leaders embrace a culture of remote working that cascades down through the entire organisation."

"It’s not enough for the IT department to introduce new tools and then leave employees to fit the pieces together. It needs to be rolled out with training and demonstrations of how UC can make people’s working lives easier and more effective.

"Far too many organisations are lagging behind due to narrow minded attitudes from the management who leave it to the technical bods to spread the word…or not."

It’s not just stodgy management culture that is slowing the flexible working revolution. Even if managers are keen to adapt, there are also obstacles, legitimate or perceived, such as security. Ojas Rege, Vice President of Strategy at MobileIron said:

"Companies want greater freedom for their employees, but not at the cost of valuable data being compromised. IT departments need to look to a security framework which protects crucial company data whilst allowing for a seamless shift into personal tasks.

"This flexible but secure working will provide businesses with peace of mind whilst encouraging employees to pursue work tasks outside of the office, without risking the integrity of their companies’ data."

It’s not clear what the catalyst for a sea change in flexible working will be, but it is clear that the demand will only increase as technology advances. Paul Fawcett, Mobility Product Manager at Azzurri Communications, describes some of the innovations to expect in the future.

"Innovation in flexible working will not stop. We are already seeing the first steps in some really exciting new uses of flexible working technology. Getting connected is going to become easier and more seamless with streamlined solutions that eliminate the need for users to find and authenticate against a network each time they want to connect.

"Beacon and proximity technology will be wider used to direct you to the closest available hotdesk, and then free it up when you have left.

"Wearable technology will also be used to track where employees are to assist with assigning location-specific tasks, and could even be used to ensure employees are having enough sleep!"

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