By Elizabeth Harrin (London)
“Fifty-five per cent of businesses are seeing more home working now than before the recession,” said Mick Hegarty, Strategy and Communication Director at BT Business. Productivity is up by 20% in those who work flexibly compared with those who don’t, he went on. BT have generated a saving of between £6million and £7million as a result of improved productivity.
Hegarty was speaking at the Remote Worker Awards in London recently, and he was just one of several employers who spoke about the value a flexible workforce offers their companies. Hegarty presented some research carried out by BT showing that companies save an average of £6,000 per employee on the cost of overheads. BT itself made estate savings by moving a portion of their workforce to flexible arrangements.
“It helps employees be more motivated,” Hegarty said. He explained that flexible working practices result in less sickness absence and better retention. They are also key in attracting new recruits and enabling employers to “draw from a wider pool of talent like lone parents.”
There are also some changes to be made on the employers side when flexible working is adopted. “There’s a stronger focus on judging output rather than appearances,” Hegarty explained. Some managers might have issues with the distinction between “face time” and “contribution” but this is something individually and collectively employers and employees can address. “They reward the faith you place in them,” he said, speaking of the employees.
Remote working can also help customers, as Shirley Pickford, winner of the Microsoft Remote Worker Award, demonstrates. Pickford is a university lecturer who never meets her students. She works at the Anglia Ruskin University, but tutors all her undergraduate students online. This suits the students, who are all in employment and fit in their studies around their professional commitments and families.
“I’ve enjoyed working remotely as a lecturer, keeping in touch with students through online discussions and using everything from blogs to wikis to publish journeys in learning,” says Pickford. “I can set up an office anywhere by opening my laptop. Everybody wins in managing projects – me, my students, colleagues and my employer.”
Pickford’s university employer has been key in making this arrangement work, both for Pickford and her students. “It’s thrilling to gain recognition of developments in remote working for myself and for Anglia Ruskin University,” Pickford said. “I am so excited to be credited for the new innovative ways in which remote working contributes to my student’s well being and learning.”
Shift in Workforce Desires
James McCarthy, the flexible working expert from Microsoft who presented Pickford with her award, commented that 73% of employers want more flexible work arrangements. “Individuals are crying out for that flexibility,” he said. But only 22% of businesses have flexible working policies.
McCarthy explained the three drivers that are influencing the take up of flexible working practices. First, there’s the available technology, which has had a notable impact on the ease of setting up broadband and other mobile working tools to help people work remotely and more flexibly.
Second, he’s noticed a shift in HR approaches, with employers thinking differently about making the best use of their workforces.
Third, there has been a move to portfolio careers. A portfolio career is when a person has more than one strand to their bow. A quick show of hands at The Grand Connaught Rooms where the Remote Worker Awards were held showed that about 30% of attendees considered themselves involved in more than one business – having a portfolio career.
“It has been a highly rewarding experience to see the wide variety of talented people who embrace flexible working and seeing just how many companies champion remote working,” said Paula Wynne, who set up Remote Employment, a recruitment portal for people looking for flexible and remote job opportunities. With business partner Ken Sheridan, Wynne discovered that 60% of companies they asked said they would use remote employment options. Only half of these companies were already doing so with current employees, and this group were comfortable with the concept and any challenges it presented. Wynne’s investigations show that nearly 40% of job seekers rate flexible working and the option to work from home as “an essential driver” in selecting their next employer. She expects that 20% of UK employees will be working remotely by 2012. Remote Employment organised the Awards to celebrate companies who have made a commitment to remote working. “It’s been such a pleasure finding these inventive pioneers!” Wynne said.
All these inventive pioneers – at least, the winners – were female. Awards judge Karen Darby didn’t seem surprised that all the award winners were women. “Women are still the primary careers when it comes to children,”she said, “so remote working gives them the opportunity to combine. It would be great next year to see more men entered – we’ll have to have a special award for men!”