Jonathan Kini, Enterprise Marketing Director, Vodafone, examines the state of flexible working in the UK today, the role that technology has played in its widespread adoption and how this technology will drive changes in the British workplace in the years to come.

This year Vodafone and the RSA released a major new report on flexible working in the UK. The Flex Factor: Realising the Value of Flexible Working is an in-depth study that looks to measure the scale of adoption of flexible working in the UK. Given their importance in enabling and encouraging more flexible ways of working, IT and technology are constant themes in the report.

Technology adoption and flexible working

Flexible working is now a reality in the UK. Whereas it was previously reserved for management-level employees, it has now become a standard part of everyday working life. The report shows that around 80 per cent of all UK employees work in organisations that provide flexible working arrangements of some kind.

One of the key reasons for this flexible working adoption has been the significant advancement in many different technologies over the last few years, to the point where the two are now inextricably linked. For businesses, the office has always traditionally housed IT, telecommunications and information infrastructure.

Without widespread internet access and subsequent mobile phone, laptop and now tablet-adoption, working away from the office would never have been possible. The advent of cloud computing and 4G has also meant that businesses have been truly freed from being tied to a physical location, able to access company information securely and quickly from any place at any time.

Indeed, around half of all employers now provide access to a laptop, with one in four providing access to smartphones and one in ten providing tablets. Employees are also filling the gap where their companies are lagging in their adoption of mobile technology, using their own smartphones and laptops to work flexibly.

The effect of combining these technologies with better ways of working has been profound, for both employees and businesses. For example, staff morale and job satisfaction is often higher in organisations where employees are empowered to work in ways that most suit them. Indeed, in its research, the RSA found that employees in organisations that have embraced flexible working believed that their skills and talents were being better used.

However, the study also showed that shifting to a more flexible workforce is not without its concerns. While technology can provide the means to work flexibly, organisational costs and the complexities of creating a flexible environment for employees were seen as potential drawbacks. The study found that organisations that adopted a strategic approach to flexible working were the most likely to derive the most benefits. Getting employee buy-in is vital, for example.

One of the first steps is for both parties, employer and employee, to renew and reinvent the ‘psychological contract’ - working together to build new working practices that meet both organisation and individual goals.

Today’s forward-thinking managers know that watching over their workforce every minute of every day is no longer a necessity - they are embracing technology to move away from the idea of presenteeism and give employees the chance to show responsibility and commitment in exchange for the opportunity to work flexibly.

What does the future hold?

Flexible working and the long-promised ability to work from any place and at any time are finally here. So what does the future hold for the way we work, especially given the incredible pace of technological change we are currently experiencing?

Rather than a place we attend daily during regular hours and where ‘business is done’, the office is likely to be transformed into a kind of hub or central meeting place where colleagues come together - or swarm - to collaborate and then leave to work on tasks individually. Fitted with flexible technology and furnishings, they will be multi-purpose, enabling the spaces to be used in various ways for different purposes.

This is already in evidence at our own campus in Newbury where fixed desks have been replaced with flexible working areas - all staff are equipped with laptops, mobiles and tablets allowing them to pitch up all over campus. The transformation of the office as a ‘hub’ or collaborative workspace will also be hastened by new 4G mobile technology. With ubiquitous access to the cloud across all devices from any place, companies will continue their migration towards being entirely cloud-based.

The days of the office as an all-encompassing site that hosts physical business infrastructure like IT systems and information repositories are numbered. With 4G allowing the same kind of access to technologies, for example HD video-conferencing, previously only available at our desks, the office will become simply a space for innovation and creative thinking.

We have already been able to witness this phenomenon with the rise of ‘office as a service’ (OaaS) companies like Rocketspace, Neardesk and Central Working; that also offers us some clues about the future of flexible working .

San Francisco-based company Rocketspace rents space on a per-person per-month rate while British firm Neardesk rents out collaborative working space on an individual or company basis. Handling the basics like security, leases, technology and office equipment, Rocketspace also offers the start-ups who rent space access to the resources they need to grow rapidly, such as venture capitalists, mentoring, talent and networking events. This service allows the companies to focus on creativity, working collaboratively and, ultimately, building and growing their businesses.

Technology and better ways of working

Technology has always had a profound effect on the way we work and it’s evolution has always driven changes in the way we make a living. The mobile technology revolution we are currently experiencing is enabling us to find new and better ways of working. Combined with the ‘psychological contract’ between employee and employer, it has the power to drive organisational efficiency, boost motivation and increase wellbeing.