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Are firms with 'flexible' working policies truly flexible?

While many firms claim to be 'flexible', are the practices they introduce adequate to enable a truly flexible workforce? A recent study by the Equity and Human Rights Commission found 20% of men in the UK were worried about asking their employer for flexible working because they felt it would harm their career. But to enable flexible working for all, HR professionals need to develop new ways of working that will maximise efficiency, productivity and creativity.

The term flexible working isn't new. It's something that HR professionals have been talking about in the industry for a long time and research suggests that over the past five years the number of companies claiming to offer flexible working practices, such as home- working, has almost doubled. Before we delve into whether this is or isn't the case, or the pros and cons of introducing such measures, we need to understand what flexible working actually means. For many, it's simply the ability to pick and choose the hours that you work. I believe the concept has evolved into something much greater than this and has, to some degree, merged with the concept of remote working. It's about giving people the freedom to work in a way that means they can deliver the best possible results, for the customer, the business and themselves.

In recent years, a raft of legislation that has been introduced to support working parents. Some cynics would argue that this has led to businesses simply ‘ticking the legislative box' by saying that they offer flexible practices. Personally, while I think we still have a long way to go before flexible working is available to all, there are certainly signs of a culture shift which, to a great extent, is driven by innovations in technology, such as email, the internet and video and teleconferencing.

The benefits of flexible working are there for all to see. By enabling employees to work in a way that best suits them and the business, be it remotely or simply part time, we're encouraging a healthy work-life balance. This has a knock on effect of making employees more productive as they feel more engaged and supported by the business. Ultimately this output should be the key performance indicator by which we judge employees. If we simply look at the input, like the number of hours spent in an office, we all too often overlook the productivity of an organisation. Experience also shows that the ability to take a more flexible approach to working - when, where and how - can also boost the creativity displayed by employees, particularly when it makes it possible for remote workers to work in collaboration.  

Another key benefit of flexible working is the positive impact it has on a business's bottom line.  The current economic climate has led many firms to assess the way in which they manage their day-to-day operations. In fact a study that BT conducted recently showed that almost half (45%) of businesses in the UK have changed the way they operate for the better as a direct result of the recession.

Business travel is one of the areas where businesses are cutting back in order to save time and money. Rising oil prices and increasing pressure on people's diaries has meant that, where possible, face-to-face meetings are being replaced by conference calls as more businesses realise the financial benefits. This is supported by research analyst company Gartner which predicts that, by 2012, the increased use of telepresence conferencing alone will reduce the annual revenues of the travel and hospitality industries by more than £2 billion.
You only have to go back as far as the early 1990s, before email and mobile phones were part and parcel of our everyday jobs, to realise that flexible working, as we know it today, simply couldn't exist. Technology has revolutionised the way we do business.  With broadband, cloud computing, video and audio conferencing, mobile phones and email employees are discovering they can stay connected to the business from any place and at any time. This revolution shouldn't be something that is restricted to the IT department. HR professionals need to be aware of the positive impact that technologies can bring to an organisation, such as better work-life balance, efficiency, training and development and, not least, staff retention. This is an example of where HR must influence not just the mindset of its people to different ways of working but also to put the tools in the hands of its people.  

Before joining BT, I was head of organisation and people development at Virgin Atlantic and responsible for the training and development of 9,000 employees. Given the nature of the airline industry, the different time zones and the movement of people between different sites and its operational nature, co-ordinating diaries to get people together was a significant challenge. Almost all our meetings were face-to-face, which meant that when it came to sharing information it was very much dependent on who could attend.

It was only when I joined BT that it actually became apparent how technology can simplify HR and also help flexible working among employees. Today I'm tasked with delivering training programmes to 19,000 people across more than 30 sites. All of the trainers are rightly located within the operational areas they support and are fully mobile to support training wherever it is needed. Getting all these people in one room is near impossible, so we use Live Meet and Conferencing technology to host meetings so that we can keep our trainers informed and exchanging ideas to drive up the quality of what we do. As well as being a practical way of working, it also means that we save vast amounts of money that would otherwise be wasted through travel costs and lost time.

In addition, conferencing has provided a low-cost tool through which we can deliver training remotely to employees across the country, without the need for a classroom or travel, an approach that works particularly well for home workers. An added bonus is that sessions can be recorded and can be viewed at a time that does not impact on the customer experience. It is also another route through which senior executives can communicate directly with vast numbers of people throughout the organisation, either real time or through recording, so that everyone is well-informed and involved in the direction and success of the business - essential in a company that needs the full engagement of its people to achieve its ambitions.

There is no doubt that with the aid of new and emerging technologies, flexible working for all is becoming a reality. However, in addition to the right leadership mindset you need to make the tools available to employees so they can ‘play' and discover what is possible. HR professionals have a pivotal role to play here in demanding these tools and ensuring that employees, such as the 20% of men I mentioned above, don't fear for their career when asking for a more flexible way of working.

Andy Cross is head of training delivery at BT Retail