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Employer optimism in flexible working not reflected in strategy, finds Microsoft

The majority of business leaders across 15 Western European countries are 'very optimistic' about the business and employee benefits of flexible working practices, but have yet to implement a strategy for making new ways of working a reality, according to Microsoft and research firm, Vanson Bourne.

Although businesses increasingly grant employees flexibility about when and where to work, the biggest barriers for employees include the right technology access and managerial guidance. Full flexible working is a reality for only a minority of knowledge workers in European businesses.

The study among business leaders found the Western European countries in which businesses are most likely to allow their employees to work flexibly are Germany, the UK and Norway; the countries in which businesses are least open to flexible working are Belgium, Portugal and Italy.

More than three in five (62%; 58 % in the UK) of organisations are convinced it is important to offer flexible working benefits in order to attract and retain talent. More than three-quarters (77%, 66% in the UK) of managers believe enabling flexible working increases employee productivity by 46% (31% in the UK).

Reflecting this attitude, 82% of European businesses (90% in the UK) report allowing flexible working, and 63% of these businesses (53% in the UK) have policies and guidelines in place in their organisation.

Yet, when this is compared with the employees' view, the picture looks very different: only 64% of employees (60% in the UK) report the opportunity to work flexibly, and less than one-third receive guidelines (29% total; 32%in the UK).

And while more than seven in 10 organisations that enable flexible work allow employees to use their own personal device for work purposes, only 17% of businesses (38% in the UK) provide a combination of basic technologies to enable more flexible work styles, such as a laptop, a smartphone and a remote connection to the company network.

In an increasingly tough economic climate, and without a management and technology strategy in place to fully enable flexible work styles, business leaders risk losing out on the multiple benefits of new ways of working, such as real estate and travel cost savings, productivity gains and the ability to attract and retain talent.

Klaus Holse, vice president, Microsoft Western Europe, said: "Businesses that will be successful in the future will be those who break down the barriers between people, workplaces and technologies and empower their employees to be productive and creative wherever they are. If European businesses want to fully reap the benefits of flexible working, they need to make information, interaction and access readily available to all their knowledge workers. IT is a catalyst for new ways of working, but competitive advantage increasingly comes from letting employees use technology in the way they want to. This requires a business culture that puts people first."

Although the study shows that seven in 10 managers – 70 in organisations allowing flexible work – say they always trust their employees to be productive when doing so, they have not yet succeeded in spreading this level of trust throughout the workforce: only 52% of employees (40% in the UK) trust their colleagues to be productive when working from outside the office.

Most significantly, a majority of employees have not been made aware of the flexible working policies and guidelines in their organisation: 63% of business leaders (53% in the UK) say they provide their organisations with flexible working policies, but only a third of employees responded that their business has a policy in place (32% in the UK). Furthermore, a quarter of businesses (9% in the UK) measure the impact of flexible working (on employee satisfaction, productivity and customer satisfaction, for example).