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Legal right to flexible working spells the end of the office

by Mark Adams, on September 3, 2014

Original article at

Legal right to flexible working spells the end of the office

On 30 June the business world changed forever. From that date the government gave employees across the UK the legal right to ask for flexible working.

For business leaders, including the IT team, this may have been greeted with horror, with visions of desolate offices and a mass exodus of staff, with all kinds of weird-and-wonderful home-working tech requests flooding in.

The government’s policy gives businesses some say in the matter, though, with organisations asked to consider requests from staff in "a reasonable manner".

The government suggests listing the pros and cons of a request, having a formal meeting to discuss the proposal and offering an appeal process should the decision be no. But why would you say no?

Yes in some circumstances letting staff pick and choose their own working hours and location will not be feasible – say, in hospitals or shops – but for many, flexible working is the next evolution of the working world, with two key driving forces.

BYOD businesses
In a report released in July Gartner research vice president Matthew Cain wrote that many employees see flexible working as a natural extension of their working lives.

“We are currently witnessing the rise of the ‘business consumer’ – an employee for whom business activities are one part of a wider lifestyle," he noted. "Business consumers often make more consumer-like choices in their workplace computing tools and styles to increase efficiency."

The rise of ‘business consumers’ happy to use their own devices in their working lives is widely known as the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend, and organisations ranging from Gatwick Airport, Camden Council and Shell, have adopted this.

“For many organisations, the partial or wholesale embracing of a consumer style of computing for business purposes will be beneficial and, in some cases, transformational," added Cain.

High-speed home workers
Coupled with this rise in BYOD are the improvements being made in connectivity. From the Isles of Scilly to the Outer Hebrides, high-speed broadband is being rolled out, while faster 4G mobile networks are now widespread.

These services mean home workers and those on-the-go can take full advantage of modern IT tools, ranging form cloud software and storage to audio and video-conferencing services, confident their connections will deliver.

This confluence of factors means numerous organisations are embracing flexible working and the benefits it brings with zest.

Deloitte, for example, recently instigated a company-wide policy giving its workforce of 12,500 the right to request flexible working arrangements, as Emma Codd, managing partner for talent at Deloitte, explained.

“These changes are about striking the right balance between offering the tools to allow people to work wherever and whenever is best for them, trusting them to make the right decisions and judging them on output," she said.

Flexible working trendsetters
One organisation that can claim to be at the vanguard of the era of flexible working is Wokingham Borough Council. It moved to a desk-to-people ratio of 2:1 as part of a space and cost-saving initiative that began back in 2010.

Stephanie Maxwell, strategic assets business partner at the council, explained to V3 that the reduction in space meant staff had to give up any claims on desks and adopt more suitable devices.

“Some people still had desktop machines so they were provided with laptops, or if they had a desk phone they were given a mobile phone,” she said.

Staff were not forced to work from home, though, and were told upfront that the council would not pay for home broadband. However, given the balance flexible working offers, most were happy to adopt the new way of working.

"Once people realised how it could impact on their work-life balance in a positive way there was a lot of interest. We piloted it first to get the ball rolling and that went well so we carried on."

“A lot of council staff were working flexibly anyway, such as social workers or planning staff, so it was more about putting processing around that and moving on from there."

Overall the project has been a huge success, with Maxwell noting savings of £50,000 in the first year alone due to its reduced office costs.

Broken devices and legal worries
Clearly the benefits of flexible working are there and many firms may be itching to send their workforce home to save on office costs.

However, flexible working plans must be properly thought out, as Clive Longbottom, an analyst with Quocirca explained.

He warns, for example, that if someone is working from home, issues over who foots the bill for web access may be encountered – an issue Wokingham Borough Council dealt with upfront – or problems may arise if an employee's device breaks.

“The business may need to put in place a rapid device-replacement service, should the user’s device fail. Can a similar device be got to the worker rapidly so that they can still at least work?”, Longbottom pointed out.

Security is also a massive topic to consider. “If the device is owned by the worker, then it could have anything on it – and that includes viruses. Sure, putting in place antivirus software may be easy, but you will find it difficult to put data and information controls in place,” he added.

"Far better to look at sandboxing the device so that there is a dedicated business environment where the business’s apps can be installed."

Then there are legal issues. Naeema Choudry, partner at law firm Eversheds, said that firms should be wary of the risk of a discrimination case being brought if a flexible working request is refused.

"This concern is heightened by the possibility of having to deal with multiple and competing requests when not all can be accommodated," she said.

Choudry added that trial periods of any flexible requests are a good first step. "Trial periods may also play a useful role, particularly if an employer is unsure about whether the arrangements requested can work,” she said.

In spite of these concerns, however, organisations are going to have to accept their workforce's right to request flexible working hours, and change their policies and practices to embrace this new era of work, and a key part of meeting these new requirements will be support from the IT team.

Tech support
Stuart Dommett, business IT evangelist and UK & Ireland business marketing manager at the Intel Sales & Marketing Group, noted that the responsibility of the IT organisation moving forward is to drive efficiencies in employees, covering office-based staff and remote workers.

"There are significant real estate benefits to be realised from approaching the work space differently and also benefits for employees in how they utilise this space. In some respects employees find their own way to be productive, so the work space should allow that to happen naturally. Designing offices around mobile landing zones and flexible workspaces allows for visitors or remote workers to work on site in an effective manner," Dommett explained.

"Utilising the latest in collaboration tools, video and document sharing, remote workers can and should be integrated with the work and culture of the organisation. Today is a time of collaboration and working together, a great time to realise the benefits and advantages of multiple models."