Flexible working – what it takes to be successful

Six years after it began its flexibility journey, Vodafone UK’s head of enterprise services Tony Bailey explains how the company changed its culture and boosted productivity.

Vodafone UK campus reception1

Productivity in the UK has come under the spotlight following news that the nation’s GDP per hour worked is lower now than it was pre-recession. In fact, the UK’s productivity is falling further behind that of its European neighbours.

To help tackle this trend, chancellor George Osborne published the report Fixing the Foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation, which sets the agenda for a national productivity drive.

Despite this, the real ‘game changer’ in the fight to recover the British economy will be the measures businesses themselves can take to enable their employees to be more productive.

Enabling employees to be more effective when they’re in and out of the office and offering them flexible working options are just some of steps that businesses have taken to help to increase productivity and growth over the last five to ten years. In addition, last year the government gave every employee the right to request flexible working from their employer. However, an overall uplift in UK productivity is yet to be realised and the adoption of flexible working is not widespread.

Flexible working can help to increase employee output – employees can be productive from wherever, whenever, and they can collaborate more effectively with colleagues, partners and customers. But to make it work, both the business and its employees must buy into a new way of working and businesses must do more than simply providing their employees with a mobile device or laptop, for example. Our own journey to working in a new way has shown us just that.

The flexible working journey

Before 2009, Vodafone had begun to introduce a form of flexible working, but this was mostly based on giving people the technology to work from somewhere other than the office, rather than examining the organisational culture and how the office space was being used. Back then, the majority of our employees still worked at a set desk within set hours. We, like many other companies, had a culture that was largely based on presenteeism.

We needed to change. We made the decision to instill flexible working practices across our entire business. We examined how we used and manipulated office space, our organisational culture, our processes and the technology we were using, and made changes to each element as necessary. Without considering all of these elements simultaneously, we realised that no flexible working programme was going to truly be successful.

Making space for a new way of working

We tasked a team to look at how employees were currently working and how they could work better. This team made sure we were making the best use of our various office locations and space and created an environment that takes into account individual roles and working styles and the need to complete different tasks.

Six years on and we continue to actively seek feedback from employees on our work environment to ensure we’re evolving with the way they want to work and therefore optimising productivity. For instance, we found we needed more communal, smaller break-out spaces for meetings of two to three people versus meeting rooms for larger numbers.

Changing culture starts at the top

Asking employees to go from one way of working to another was not easy. Some were nervous of the change. Business leaders needed to understand how to manage their teams in a different way – as they may not be as physically visible to them all of the time. This was what they were used to and after all, it was how almost every business worked back then.

To tackle this, we made it clear that flexible working was something that would be fully endorsed and adopted by everyone from the CEO down. In the new way of working the CEO no longer had an office and worked in the open plan environment like everyone else. This iteration of flexible working wasn’t just about giving everyone a laptop and a mobile, but was about an entirely new way of working that would ultimately benefit everyone.

We knew there needed to be some hard and fast rules to drive change effectively and create a culture that gives employees the freedom to work flexibly but in a way that’s effective and productive. Through communication and training we made sure everyone bought into the changes, and called people out when they broke the rules, such as making sure everyone cleared the desk they were sitting at that day before they went home. We needed to demonstrate that all employees would be treated fairly and equally, with no-one, regardless of rank, allowed to break the rules.

Crucially, we now measure by results and not by how long an employee’s coat hangs on the back of the chair in the office.

We have created a culture that gives employees the freedom to make the most of this way of working and to work in the way that best suits them and the job they do.

More than a mobile phone

As a technology company it’s no surprise that we equipped employees with mobiles and laptops so they could work anywhere and access information either in or out of the office. We also thought about how people wanted to work across our HQ, by installing Wi-Fi everywhere and providing more audio and video conferencing facilities so people didn’t have to travel to other locations for meetings. We looked at all our processes and moved things online and into the cloud where possible, making sure everyone had access to systems and information from anywhere.

We know that providing the right technology is key but so is making sure everybody knows how to use it. There’s also a real need to educate staff on the company’s policies around flexible working and security to keep information secure.

Benefits to our own business and beyond

When our employees knew that flexibility was being driven from the top, their acceptance of it grew. Today it is the norm. In fact it has become a deal sweetener when it came to attracting and retaining new talent.

Since first implementing better ways of working in 2009, we have reduced our real estate by 30% and saved millions on property, energy and travel costs. In addition, there has been a rise in employee engagement since re-working our buildings to support better, more cost efficient and collaborative ways of working.

We’ve also found that our employees are able to be more productive, as they can work from anywhere, and don’t always have to travel between offices for meetings, or can work effectively from a customer’s premises, for example.

Our ‘Better Ways of Working’ philosophy is also something that we share with our customers. Whenever we introduce a customer to the idea of working with us, we explain how we work as an organisation, and how this approach can play a positive role in their company. Over the past four years we have engaged with more than 500 other businesses on our better ways of working ideals, and it’s been very rewarding to see successful implementation across their businesses.

There’s always room for improvement

But it’s not all been smooth sailing. We didn’t get it right first time and it’s still not perfect now. The most important thing for businesses to realise is that for flexible working to be successful long term, it has to be a process that constantly evolves with the needs and requirements of the business and employees.

By doing this, flexible working can continue to support businesses success and ultimately help to drive up employee productivity – it certainly has helped our business and we haven’t looked back.



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3 replies

  1. I work for Vodafone and I wish it were that simple. Unfortunately if you have a boss who won’t allow flexible working despite having no justification other than to pull rank there is nothing a colleague can do other than the long and awkward route of appeals and grievances. The policy and how to apply it should be fair and clear with support to anyone requesting it. Sadly this is just not the case and it feels like a fatal flaw for people like me who feel the employee experience does not match the PR hype.

  2. My husband works for Vodafone in Newbury and all I hear from him endlessly is that there are no desks available to work on and when there are people’s elbows are touching. He says there are not enough meeting rooms for all of the endless meetings that he has and that he has also struggled to get sanction for more home working which would relieve the everyday commute, despite having to be Overseas a lot on business. I wonder whether the CEO struggles to get a space to work on?Not sure this ethos of flexible working is fully thought through….

  3. I work for a large bank in the Asia Pacific region that introduced flexible working/flexi desking several years ago. In some aspects it’s great, I enjoy the opportunity to work from home one day per week and to be able to connect to our networks remotely (technology permitting) and via Wifi when away from my desk.

    The downside is the company has taken the opportunity to maximise cost savings by squeezing too many people into not enough space, and by not maintaining that space and equipment to the necessary level. This means that there aren’t enough desks, facilities and amenities for the number of users, and what there is is often broken, dirty or unreliable.

    While expecting us to be enthusiastic about the possibilities afforded us by not having to return to the same spot every day, the company rewards us with office chairs of which maybe one in five is not broken in some way, desks of which only a few are fully height adjustable, and a complete failure to enforce proper office ettiquette (people get away with bad habits like letting mobile phones ring at full volume, often while the owner is not at their desk to answer it, standing behind others’ desks talking on the mobile phone or to a colleague (possibly because they went looking for a private meeting room and couldn’t find one), and holding conference calls at the desk). Our toilet and kitchen facilities are over used and grubby, and finding a meeting room is often like finding a unicorn. We treasure and hoard the wipes that are provided (yet often in short supply) that we have to use to clean the desk down, to avoid whatever germs have been left behind from the person who sat there the day before.

    I believe flexible working can be a really positive thing, when properly supported by good management, decent equipment and the necessary good office ‘manners’, but in many cases it’s just an excuse for squeezing cost savings without regard for the needs of the workers, and I believe it actually ends up impacting negatively on productivity for the reasons stated above.

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