Wide-ranging benefits can be derived from encouraging flexible working, including increased productivity and lower costs. However, many are still sceptical of giving staff the freedom to work on their own terms. Mark Stuart argues the case for homeworking.
The number of hours we work is increasing. While the rise of technology means that employees are more connected, this also means that the lines between work and free time are becoming more blurred. With email and mobile phones, each employee from the CEO down is rarely genuinely 'unavailable' any more.
Some reports indicate that US citizens work the longest hours in the world, with Germany and the UK not far behind. Inevitably, this is leading to rising stress levels. The potential for burnout is worrying; a study in the US journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine associates long working hours with a range of conditions from hypertension and chronic infection to cardiovascular disease.
In the US, it is estimated that more than half of all working days lost to absenteeism are stress-related, whereas in the UK, over 40 million working days are lost each year due to stress-related disorders.
The answer is to work smarter, not longer. But in a faster, more pressured working environment, how can that be achieved? Paradoxically, the very technology that is keeping us 'on demand' can also provide the solutions to creating a more successful work-life balance.
The technology exists to enable more employees than ever before to work from home. The ubiquity of the internet, email and mobiles, and the rise in business usage of IM and VoIP, means that there are many jobs in intellectual capital industries that can now be done effectively and comprehensively from home, at least on a part-time basis.
Additionally, more sophisticated, reliable and affordable video-conferencing systems are appearing on the market, allowing meetings that would have once required hours of travelling to be conducted remotely.
The business case for encouraging homeworking is persuasive. A recent study revealed that 49% of companies saw a positive increase in productivity after introducing a work-life balance scheme. As far back as 2003, BT saved £52m in overheads by increasing its number of homeworkers. This also led to an annual saving of £10m in fuel costs.
By encouraging and facilitating a culture of homeworking and flexitime, companies can help employees cut travelling times, reduce unnecessary meetings and work more effectively.
It has been shown repeatedly that companies that foster a flexible working environment have better results. They also have happier and healthier employees, creating a positive cycle of more efficient, more effective work.
Across Europe, the EU Working Directive is intended to prevent employees working excessive hours, and in the UK the Department of Trade and Industry is trying to help companies develop a culture of flexible working practices. But legislation only provides a framework. Companies need to change their mindset when it comes to regarding the working day spent in the office as normal practice. And this can only happen with the support of the CEO and the board downwards.
THE ADVANTAGES OF FLEXITIME
The benefits of homeworking and flexitime are significant not just for employee satisfaction and increased productivity, but also in terms of competitive advantage, business sustainability and cost savings.
Consider the average office environment. By enabling, for example, a third of your workforce to work from home two or three days a week, you could hot-desk a substantial number of employees, significantly reducing costly office space and cutting your utilities bills. You are also more likely to hold on to valued employees because if they can work in ways that suit them, they’re less likely to leave.
You also increase your commitment to the environment. Homeworking means less commuting, which lowers carbon emissions. While many companies want to reduce their carbon footprint, they struggle to find ways to do so – and are understandably reluctant to budget precious resources for something that is seen as distant.
Creating a culture of flexible working practices actually saves the company money; unlike many other corporate social responsibility initiatives, this is a very quick and easy way to improve your ethical balance sheet.
QUALITY OF LIVING
In the UK, a significant advantage of homeworking is addressing the severe problems of congestion and escalating house prices in the south east. By encouraging homeworking, companies can hold onto staff that would otherwise relocate elsewhere in the UK or abroad.
HSBC plans to halve its London workforce at Canary Wharf over the next seven years, using technology to enable 4,000 of its employees to be mobile or work from home by 2014. This will help encourage flexible working patterns, freeing staff from having to be there 9–5.
The bank recently sold its headquarters for £1.1bn in a sale and leaseback deal, allowing CEO Michael Geoghegan to eventually vacate half the building. "Technology should change our thought processes," he says. "I don't think we are a really progressive, perceptive company if 8,000 people have to get up at an ungodly hour and go back again later."
Most importantly, homeworking improves productivity. A recent BT pilot on homeworking indicated a 15%–31% increase across functions, with absenteeism 20% below the average. One startling figure was a 99% rate of return after maternity leave, compared with a UK average of 40%.
NEED TO CHANGE
The US has the most pressing need to improve its work-life balance. According to figures from Warwick University, 85% of employees want more time with their families, and it's the workers with most qualifications who suffer the most.
US companies are not under the same legal obligations as their counterparts in the UK and EU to accommodate requests for more flexible working. Yet with the business and personal advantages of homeworking being so compelling, and the technology now in place to enable it, organisations in the US could benefit from looking at flexible working patterns as a low-cost solution to the desire for more quality time at home and with the family.
Significant areas for competitive advantage from flexible working include superior service and innovation. Most companies would agree that innovation plays a significant role in their success; but how many bright ideas emerge from employees sitting behind a desk in a windowless room? Giving workers more freedom to work in the way that suits them fosters creativity and imagination – 3M allows its employees to ring-fence paid 'thinking time', which has to be taken away from the office.
Secondly, by making working hours less rigid, companies can be more flexible in terms of the service they offer to customers. Flexitime can mean that if, for example, a customer rings at 8am or 7pm, there's a higher chance of being able to speak to a manager. That translates into increased brand loyalty, and is the kind of differentiating good service that is likely to lead customers to speak positively about your company to friends and colleagues.