Working flexibly is part of a big change programme that aims to improve organisational efficiency. Dennis Shields examines why it's important to make a distinction between remote access and alternative ways of working (AWOW).

Flexible working incorporates; the use of 'hot-desking' (shared desks), remote working (say from home), ip telephony, flexible hours, job share and other ways that are continuously being explored.

The technology to do this is now here and has been for some time. However, there are other issues that need to be looked at before an organisation can unleash it on its entire workforce.

Amongst these and not least is the human factor. It requires good teamwork: co-operation from the staff, senior managers reviewing how we work and developing new ways of working. If used well it is of mutual benefit to both the employer as well as to the employees.

Alternative ways of working (AWOW)

Organisation's aims

  • To save on office space and its maintenance;
  • To profit from its sale of property (not very profitable at the time of writing).

IT service aims

  • To maintain operational effectiveness of the organisation whilst improving operational systems and installing new ones.

Operational effectiveness

Operational effectiveness is the efficient performance of our current operational information systems in order to fulfil the requirements of internal and external customers. Ultimately this leads to better customer service.

The success of the management of IT and communications depends very largely on rapid response to user enquiries and meeting a high proportion of problems and services. We need an agile, flexible workforce that reacts to things more swiftly and efficiently.

Work environment

I recently visited a site that still retained the small offices with small teams' philosophy. The staff had music playing in the background; they seemed relaxed but nonetheless being very industrious yet calm about it. It was a relief from what seems to have become the norm these days: to bunch everybody; senior managers, middle managers and staff into one massive office.

Open plan offices can give the appearance that all employees are viewed as factory workers (a cog in a machine and dispensable). When writing something confidential everyone passing by could potentially see it and there's no private place to talk to your staff either. The din of voices, telephones and the general ambient noise does not seem conducive.

Why treat every office as if it is Euston station or an airport and at worst an open market.  Those kinds of places are designed to move large numbers of people very quickly through them (though nonetheless unpleasant places for the staff who work there). I can understand a factory because of the machinery but not all work needs that environment, least of all computing where miniaturisation abounds (with the exception of the machine room perhaps).    

As service manager you are managing the staff on the one side and managing the technical service on the other. You can make all of the most careful plans in the world and have rotas but there is always that time in the morning, or the time of day you take the shift over, that one or more of your staff will ring in sick or say they need to take carer's leave that day. 

In situations like these it is far better that a member of staff can work from home that day rather simply take the day off because there is no alternative. They can keep an eye on the child but still carry on with their work, if they have the technology in place to do it.

There are far too many occasions, as service manager, that you have to deal with all kinds of 'HR' type situations and a flexible way of working is often of great benefit. This guarantees that staff do not take days off unnecessarily or, if they do, they can still work from home.

The staff feel more relaxed and less anxious if one of their children is ill, or has to be away from school due to a 'staff training' day, and they need to look after them. These are practical 'friendly hours'. It can also be particularly advantageous if you have a management report to finish and you can do this at home away from all interruptions.

Way forward

Like most things it is important to understand, plan and manage such a programme.  It requires a good insight into what the issues are with regard to flexible and remote working.  'Change agents' need to be drawn from all the business side of an organisation, whilst making sure that the technical side are also well represented. It is by getting a holistic approach to this challenge that one can guarantee its success. 

A balance needs to be struck between the business needs (in particular) and the technical aspects of it. No one side should be pulling and it is important for both sides to understand each other's point of view and to work together in achieving this goal. When working on a project like this it is good to develop the team spirit, not least in working towards overcoming resistance to change with the potential users.

There is a need to investigate practical ways to make this approach to working work.  It is no good if the users will not use it, or it is not fit for purpose. Careful thought has to be put into making sure your team will buy into this way of working so that they can see the benefit and more importantly are they prepared to work in this way. Some might be really adamant about not wanting to bring work home. Others may say they have DDA requirements and it would make it very difficult to use 'hot-desking' in their case.

But on the other hand some would welcome the flexibility of working from home or indeed from other locations within the company. 

Plan of approach

So what is the plan of approach to successful implementation of a flexible way of working?  Some suggestions: -

  • Think of how to build and use team spirit to make it work;
  • The human aspect - overcoming resistance to change (at all levels);
  • Think how to handle concerns in a positive manner;
  • Empowering staff and taking responsibility;
  • Create the right environment for working - 'want to work' rather than 'have to work';
  • Be realistic and identify problems with flexible and remote working;
  • Understand people, teams and group dynamics;
  • Meetings - how can your staff attend these and ensure they do not feel cut-off;
  • Practical issues - how do you monitor performance and manage your staff;
  • Green computing - less traffic on the roads.

So what can possibly go wrong?

Case study: IT professional - has no desk or guaranteed parking space.

08:30 Hrs: Just struggled through the London bound traffic and arrived at place of work.  Can not find parking. Circle round for about 20 minutes to find a parking space. Find one about a mile away.

09:05 Hrs: Gets into work. Has to find a desk. Finds a desk and settles down to start work. Finds the phone is not working or the email is not working or the computer decides to throw a wobbly that morning.

9:45 Hrs: Starts work. Settles down to work.

11:00: Hrs Guy comes in, says to the person 'That is my desk'. Person gets up, un-docks the laptop, picks up work, and has to move to another desk. Use a pedestal to store your paper work?  - can not carry this around with you if you are working at another site. So you end up carrying everything in your case. This can be a regular occurrence every morning.

What other issues to consider - working from home?

There are various points that you as an organisation or a manager have to consider: -

  • Insurance;
  • Health and safety;
  • Who is paying for heating and lighting;
  • DDA (need to carry out survey) and make adjustments if need be to accommodate the member of staff;
  • Installing Broadband for each user;
  • Should your engineers be expected to go to people's homes to support it?;
  • Should the users be allowed to use their machines and if so who maintains their anti-virus etc?;
  • Security and confidentiality - what if one of their relatives looks onto a screen when someone's record is on the screen?;
  • Do the users use their phone line or a mobile or IP telephony?;
  • How do they cope with relatives; wife, husband, children who expect them to put the washing out and go and do the shopping ('and yes while you're here put that shelf up') kind of attitude? Or you may be talking on the phone to a customer and your relative starts talking to you. How do you deal with this and make them understand that you are at work?;
  • How do you monitor your staff? Are they just logged in and doing nothing?
  • No colleagues to discuss things with;
  • Staff meetings: use conferencing techniques?;
  • Should they come into work once a week or once a month at least?;
  • Feedback process;
  • Company Savings by disposal / selling of premises needs to be complemented with a large investment in technology and its support.

The above are by no means exhaustive. We have to be grateful for all the technology that makes this possible. But all these factors have to be seriously considered. Clearly though, there are both pros and cons. By keeping these in mind an organisation can be realistic. 

On the whole, although there are still some nuisances with this method of working, the advantages well outweigh the disadvantages. By introducing this element of flexibility it will help to create an agile, flexible, less reactive and more pre-emptive work force.

Ideas expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent those of the employer.

About the author

Dennis Shields has several years experience in IT, gained across various industries. He is also the BCS Essex branch Secretary.