A new report shows SMEs' IT skills central to flexible working success. Three quarters of UK SMEs now claim to offer their employees some form of flexible working, according to a new report released today by BT Business.

But the report says that the adoption of newly defined third generation flexible working, is slow due to a lack of technical know-how across the workforce.

Researched by independent forecasting think tank, The Centre for Future Studies, and backed by new YouGov research, the IT Skills for Flexible Working report, for the first time introduces definitions for different types of flexible working.

The first generation involves time flexibility - offering part time or short term working to employees, whilst the second generation involves both time and location flexibility; so in addition to offering flexi-hours to staff, technology is provided for employees to work whilst on the move.

Finally, the most sophisticated and revolutionary flexible working, third generation, involves the emergence of the virtual office, which has total location independence and employees are given greater autonomy in the way they manage and plan their work.

While many SMEs have successfully adopted first and second generation practices, few SMEs are using the third generation practices where technology is fully integrated to create a virtual office.

This limited application of technology is confirmed by the 62 per cent that say that they lack the appropriate IT skills and training to properly exploit their existing technology and therefore third generation flexible working.

Bill Murphy, managing director, BT Business, said: 'We are witnessing the emergence of flexible hours, flexible tasks and flexible locations. The technology to support this is available to businesses of all sizes and sectors and is delivering tangible business benefits.

'We work with companies who recognise that by offering flexible working they can attract and retain the very best people to bring business success. SMEs need to embrace third generation flexible working to compete in attracting talented staff and to serve their customers to a high standard.

'BT Business works with more than a million business customers. We're helping them to harness the networked IT services and skills that are becoming essential to success.'

IT Skills for Flexible Working explores the ways in which SMEs can address the skills shortage. For example, advances in training packages and management culture reflecting the change in working patterns to ensure that vital services such as security and technical back-up are easily accessible and affordable.

It also highlights how flexible working can accommodate employees personal needs and gives them the ability to manage their own lives better, helping to build a strong loyal workforce.

Dr Frank Shaw, foresight director at the Centre for Future Studies, said: 'Our research shows that many SMEs are operating their IT systems on a low-tech and low-skill basis. Even though the majority of SMEs have access to the technology required to sustain flexible working, many are failing to exploit the benefits because of a lack of skills. SMEs need to demonstrate their commitment to flexible working by arming their employees with the know-how to use the tools.'

Other key findings from the report include:

  • 75 per cent of SMEs do not provide specific IT training for remote workers;
  • 88 per cent of managers have not received any training on managing remote workers and are not familiar with the IT requirements;
  • 25 per cent are dissatisfied with the basic IT skills of their workers;
  • 41 per cent are dissatisfied with the advanced IT skills of their workers;
  • 37 per cent are dissatisfied with the technical skills of their workers.

While there is relatively low adoption and use of third generation flexible working technologies, use of mobile devices and laptops with mobile connectivity was high. More than four-fifths of those surveyed said that their organisations use both mobile phones and laptops within and outside the office. Other mobile devices, such as smartphones and BlackBerrys are also being used.

Murphy continued: 'The future of competitive business for SMEs relies on employers and employees having a good grasp of technology. Businesses of all sizes should work together to ensure that SMEs are equipped with the correct skills to use technology to its full benefit.'