Flexible working - shift from office norm?
When the idea of flexible working was first introduced, we were presented with a dramatically different world. Interest in working flexibly was so intense at its peak in the mid 1990s that we were seriously asked to consider nothing less than the death of the office itself. We could work from home if we wanted as an alternative to soul-sapping commuting, desk-bound grind and vending machine coffee.
Things havent quite turned out like that of course, but that doesnt mean that flexible working doesnt have a major part to play in todays business environment. In fact, a survey carried out by the CBI recently highlighted just how mainstream flexible working now is. Almost half of the firms and public-sector organisations polled by the CBI said they now offered teleworking to staff, a sharp rise from 14 per cent two years ago and 11 per cent in 2004.
The uptake of flexible working has been encouraged by both the pull of business necessity and the push of legislation which has given an increasing number of employees the right to work flexibly. There has been much agonising of the usual rights and responsibilities kind about this legislation but the business case for flexible working is pretty clear. It can help organisations to retain employees without disrupting the business and can even make them more productive. It can also help to cut the cost of workplace ownership.
Working from home the naked truth for businesses
Flexible working was originally seen as an alternative to the 9-5 routine, but now sits centre stage alongside typical working arrangements its something that people do in addition to their traditional work in their traditional workplaces. The home is not an alternative to the workplace but an annexe to it. Businesses, therefore, need to address the issues that inevitably arise otherwise the introduction of flexible working will fail to yield the expected Results and may, in some cases, be counter-productive.
The health and safety issues involved are complex, but all rely on one fundamental principle. Workers have the same rights and needs wherever they are. The company has the same obligations to its home working employees as it does to its office based staff. Many of these obligations are laid out in the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) and include the need to supply appropriate equipment, carry out risk assessments, offer training and generally provide a safe working environment. Related legislation such as the Display Screen Equipment Regulations is equally applicable as is the Disability Discrimination Act.
What this means is that the idyllic scene of a happy home worker, sitting in casual clothing at a sun-dappled kitchen table with their laptop while the kids play with a Labrador, remains a fantasy (and if you dont believe that this is a common perception, try Googling images of telework and see what you come up with. Research also shows that 15 per cent of teleworkers work naked, which should keep the brakes on teleconferencing).
Health & safety - support home workers
A recent survey by BT identified a crucial gap in the approach of businesses to home working. It found that while 83 per cent of businesses provide staff with mobile and wireless gadgets such as laptops and Blackberries to promote flexible working, only 62 per cent back this up with formal working from home policies.
The Health and Safety at Work Act is the key legislation to heed. It states that an employers duty extends to provision and maintenance of a working environment for his employers that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe, without risks to health, and adequate as regards facilities and arrangements for their welfare.
In other words, if you are going to be part of the 62 per cent of employers who are actively encouraging staff members to work from home or adopt non-standard shift patterns (according to Citrix Online survey 2009) then you need to be aware that your responsibility extends to their home office as well.
The same risk assessments apply to the home and the office and to a company of 10 and a company of 10,000 employees. A part of these risk assessments is to ensure that your staff are correctly equipped, which means they have the right desk, chair and computer monitor. It's easy to fall into the trap of buying cheap furniture to keep initial outlay low but prevention is better than cure and by taking this approach you are susceptible to being stung with a hefty fine if health problems such as back and neck pain or RSI (repetitive strain injury) occur as a result. Is it really worth the risk in todays uncertain times?
Recognize flexible workers individual needs
What is of utmost importance is to have a better and more productive workforce than your competitor, especially in a recession. The appropriate furniture alone is not enough, employers must ensure that the right training is given and that this is supported and maintained by a forward-thinking management culture. Everybody is different - encouraging variation in tasks and movement where possible are simple but proven methods of increasing productivity, reducing absenteeism and promoting a sense of wellbeing and doing more than just following the law to the letter. Once you have implemented and encouraged this in the workplace, home workers will naturally adopt the habits in a home office as long as they are correctly equipped to.
Work provides for a range of needs. Working structures our time, it provides social contact and gives us a sense of purpose and identity. The workplace supports these needs but also acts as a pool of information for people to swim in and also links them to organisational culture and corporate identity. Ultimately, if home working is implemented on a hard, rational basis without consideration for the softer aspects of our working lives, the Benefits of flexible working for employer and employee can evaporate.
Steps should be taken to ensure that remote workers do not feel isolated and have access to information and face time with colleagues. Employees working from home should have access to the full remit of the organisation - to bulletins, newsletters, intranets and so on. Consider the physical aspect - it can be important that remote workers are able to book space for work and meetings in company buildings, for example.
Flexible workers are key players in any company
Everyone is different of course some home workers will structure their time appropriately, others will have to be helped. But all should be allowed to work in ways that suit both them and the firm the true essence of flexibility. Some people may think little of sitting unshowered and unchanged in their home office in the middle of the afternoon. Others feel more comfortable mimicking the norms and routines of the traditional working day. Both are acceptable if clearly defined objectives are being met.
The important thing is to treat remote workers as we would office based employees. At the most basic level this means meeting their needs for a comfortable and safe physical environment, but the more important point is how well you meet their psychological needs. This means making sure they see themselves as part of the organisation, not just supporting players waiting in the wings. They should never feel that just because they are out of sight, they are out of mind.