Following the introduction of new UK legislation in April 2003 with regards to offering employees with young or disabled children flexible working options, there have been massive developments in the way in which organisations operate.
Two years on, the ideas behind flexible working are still being discussed, experimented with and tentatively accepted throughout the UK. At the forefront of this movement is the objective of providing employees with a suitable work/life balance and key to its success is supporting this through achieving more profitable business practices.
Flexible working is all about working in real time. It is about mobilising work forces and giving individuals the freedom and ability to work any time, anywhere, using any device. It is about enterprise-wide access to information, applications and data and the ability to utilise these items as and when they are needed.
For employees it means home-working abilities and potentially improved work / life balance. It should also mean easier working, more effective methods and processes, and the ability to work smarter to achieve more.
For employers it means maximising efficiency to achieve more through the same resources. It means improved employee retention and improved services for customers - which in turn means increased competitiveness and greater profitability. However, as with most things, there are also negative implications. Organisations are under pressure to find the budget to invest in new technology to meet legislation, remain competitive and keep employees and customers.
IT teams must be retrained to manage new systems and learn to monitor and manage different technologies. Security becomes a bigger issue and organisations must ensure they are properly effective in this area to prevent unnecessary downtime; and in addition to this employee work levels are harder to monitor.
All these things must be considered but most organisations fail to address all of them in advance of implementing a new mobile working IT solution - making the whole process much more difficult than it needs to be. Organisations that recognise the importance of flexible working tend to address more of these factors and also identify that a successful flexible working solution begins with technology.
In order to support flexible working, you need to invest in the right technology solution for your organisation. Not only must you ensure you achieve a good return on investment, you must also ensure that your solution promotes and supports productivity, that it is secure, that it can be easily managed and that it is scaleable. As if that wasn't enough you must also tackle the attitudes of employees and ensure middle management is on-side.
Clock-watching must become a thing of the past and management styles must change to accommodate remote working and support virtual teams. Due to all these factors the role of the IT department becomes even more central to achieving business success.
After all it is IT that is largely responsible for the phenomenon of flexible working. More specifically it is the emergence and growth of broadband phone connections. Of late what was the virtual workplace has been transformed into the access-on-demand environment on which flexible working is based.
By using broadband, office capabilities can be granted to any employee, working anywhere, using any device. Email can be accessed as can the internet and employees can directly view and manipulate documents, data and applications located at base in the same way in which they would when in the office.
The advantages of this type of working are endless. For companies with employees on the road it means constant, real-time communication and faster processing of customer orders or queries. It means instant service for customer-facing staff and real-time access to the latest personal information for those who provide public services. It also reduces duplication of work as files and documents can be accessed and updated as and when needed by users.
For IT employees there are slightly different implications and the key to success lies in long-term planning. This ensures that point access using methods such as virtual private networks does not become a norm that has an expiry date. Instead it means addressing how access takes place, through what channels and how to consolidate this for ease of management and high security, both now and in the future.
Home-working brings new problems for IT departments and security is a key one of these. The DTI's Information Security Breaches Survey 2004 demonstrated that 86 per cent of large UK organisations allow their employees to access information via dial-up or the internet.
Amazingly a massive quarter of these companies admitted they did not have the technology to detect unauthorised access. Smaller percentages of these companies said they relied solely on standard passwords to manage remote access and only one in 20 used two-factor authentication or digital certificates to protect themselves. In 2005 it is essential that organisations do more to protect themselves.
Data stored on laptops should be encrypted and access points should be protected. As Trojans, worms and diallers become more prevalent, the threats posed by viruses need addressing. The answer lies in complete security solutions that cater for individual requirements, provide malware detection and deliver full firewall functionality. These types of enterprise-wide solutions are what organisations should be starting to look towards if they are to achieve long-term success.
In addition to the problems the IT department may face, flexible working can also bring problems in the form of productivity issues. If true flexible working options are granted, how can productivity be maintained? Does flexible working allow employees to do less rather than more? New users of this method of working find it difficult to adjust to trusting workers to be productive independently and there are cases where flexible working means daytime television and four-hour lunches.
However statistics indicate this is the exception rather than the rule and employers operating flexible working arrangements have found they enable them to retain skilled staff and reduce recruitment costs, raise staff moral and reduce absenteeism, and help the company react to changing market conditions more effectively.
Research carried out by the DTI also found that 71 per cent of employers using flexible working said it had a positive impact on management; 69 per cent said that employee relations, motivation and commitment had improved and 54 per cent reported a positive impact on labour turnover. In addition to this, 39 per cent of employers with four or more flexible working practices in place found that financial performance was better than in similar companies in the same industry.
In terms of cost of investment versus the benefits of implementation, things are also looking positive. The rising cost of office space means a quantifiable reason to invest in flexible working as hot-seating and remote working replaces the need for floor space. Webcams or specific software can be used to check if an employee is logged on, enabling remote monitoring to ensure efficiency. The right solution can bring a return on investment within 12 months.
So is flexible working really effective? If organisations use the right technology, a fully trained IT department and an open minded approach the answer is 'yes'. But perhaps the more appropriate question is: can you afford not be flexible? It is not about questioning whether flexible working is really effective - it is about changing the way we work to make it effective.