Dave Dunbar is general manager of BT Flexible Working Services, which works with private and public sector organisations to roll out flexible working. He gives his top tips for embedding flexibility and expresses his surprise that this way of working still hasn’t been universally adopted.
Has the flexible working battle been won?
I didn’t expect to be still doing this. When we set up years ago I thought this is something that is evidently a good thing and everyone is going to be working this way. It’s surprising: right across industry you have organisations who are working flexibly and working well and after all this time they are still seen as early adopters. The majority of organisations are still discussing it.
How did you get into this area of work?
About 14 years ago we began looking at flexible working. One job I had at BT was to set up a product line for BT’s internal property services and I ended up owning BT’s own flexible working for a number of years. That was when we had moved people out of offices and into open plan at the end of the 1990s. There was an embryonic home working core and we were looking at how to introduce flexible working into our buildings. At the peak we had 14,500 Inland Revenue-recognised home workers and the majority of the organisation working from home on an ad hoc basis.
How did you move into helping other organisations?
We started looking at how we could roll it out in a more structured fashion, concentrating more on flexible working than home working. We decided to take it to the marketplace more vigorously. Since then we have worked with 40 or 50 clients on work style, helping them move into a flexible working regime, adopting a range of work styles across the organisation. We now focus more on in-building flexible working – first it was home working, then mobile working, now it’s about how you use office space and the social networks there.
What does this mean in practice?
It means teams working as teams in the most appropriate place. This is likely to be a team area a lot of the time; it may be on the customer’s premises sometimes and there is the flexibility to work with other groups in the organisation. If you need to concentrate and work at home, that’s good too. We’re trying to stop the still very common occurrence where you walk into a building and there is 40% utilisation of space.
Is international interest in flexible working growing?
Our clients tend to be larger organisations but we have worked with organisations of 300-400 people and advised smaller charities as well as government bodies inside and outside the UK. 80% of the work is here but there is growing interest elsewhere, not only in Europe but the Middle East and places like South Korea. The UK has stolen a march in this area.
Are younger workers more eager to adopt flexibility?
It’s surprising: people coming into the workforce want a desk and don’t feel as secure. In terms of adopting flexible working and new technology it’s not necessarily the demographics you’d expect.
Is flexible working easier for small companies or large?
It varies from company to company. A lot of small companies have premises that are deliberately punching above their weight. They focus on the office and people in the office because they are competing with big organisations. By and large, the majority of small organisations out there are fleet of foot because they have to be. However, they are agile in a very ad hoc way and when they start to grow and become more process-driven they have too many people to have individual arrangements. Then they start to close in a little bit and become less flexible. When they are larger they need to become competitive again and start to discuss it – when you’re established it becomes a completely different world.
Are there downsides to this way of working?
If you have a crisis then having everyone under one roof can be helpful. When that happens it takes a mature flexible working organisation to make that happen. You have to anticipate the problem and make people aware that if it comes to the crunch, sometimes everybody being in a room for 12 hours is the only way to do it.
Secondly, it takes a lot of maintenance. You need to keep trimming back the jungle as it starts to encroach on the clearings again – it’s not a one-off exercise. You need to make sure areas are clear and that nobody is feeling cut loose and adrift. There is definitely an overhead to that. Other than those, if you do it properly there are no real downsides.
Can the benefits be measured?
Some things are easy to measure so the business case tends to be about cashable things like property and absenteeism. It is less easy to measure effectiveness, efficiency, employee engagement and satisfaction. Some organisations measure head count, which is not as crude as it sounds and is a very big driver at the moment as so many are being asked to reduce numbers through natural wastage.
When you’re more established it’s a bit more straightforward – you can compare departments that have adopted flexible working with those that haven’t for example. But when flexible working becomes embedded it’s almost impossible to tease out the benefits because it is part of the business. We have that problem now: there is massive momentum around flexible working and changes elsewhere make ripples in that.
What is your top tip for organisations looking to start flexible working?
The golden rule is to be serious about it. A lot of organisations are trialling and testing, phasing with tiny numbers. You can’t trial a culture. Decide at a high level that you need to work flexibly as an organisation and make that the absolute end game. You can phase it but plan to advance at a relatively rapid pace and across the entire organisation.
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