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There’s more to Flexible Working than just Cutting Costs

In today’s challenging economic climate, increasing opportunities to work flexibly can be a cost effective way to retain staff, improve well-being and productivity.

Allowing staff to finish work at lunchtime on summer Fridays and taking the Royal Wedding’s extra bank holiday on a date of their choice (instead of the day itself) are two flexible working options implemented by cereals’ manufacturer, Kellogg’s at its Manchester head office. Whilst these initiatives may seem more radical than most, they illustrate perfectly just how much the UK’s working patterns have changed over the past decade.

It’s less than 10 years since parents of children under six (or disabled children under 18) were given the statutory right to ask for flexible working and have their employer consider it seriously.  But within this relatively short time period, the number of companies offering flexible working has grown steadily; with around 96% of the private sector now operating at least one such policy.  Whilst there is still no automatic, legal right for UK employees to work flexibly, the widespread nature of such policies indicates that the majority of people have some flexibility about how and when they work.

Flexible working is generally defined as any working pattern which has been adapted to suit a particular need.  This covers a wide variety of different working practices, of which home-working, flexi-time, part-time and job sharing are probably the most well-known and widely used. Other options include “time-shifting” where employees have the flexibility to change the length of their working days: this can be by staggering the start and end of their working days, compress the days (working longer – but fewer – days) or annualising time to spread hours over a yearly, rather than weekly basis.  Structured time off in lieu is another popular option which is often used to address peaks and troughs in demand. Term-time working is also a very effective option for many working parents.

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This variety of working options also highlights the changes taking place in the UK, European and global economies.  Organisations are increasingly required to operate and compete in sophisticated markets which demand more personalised service, greater technical support and often have longer production and sales cycles. As a result, many organisations find that the traditional 40 hour, five day working week is no longer the most efficient option. Similarly, many employees now have more complex lives than even 10 or 20 years ago: many parents (particularly women) would now find it difficult to work without some degree of flexibility in their hours or location.  Additionally, many employees now want to balance their working and personal commitments and see flexible working as the way to achieve it.

Some organisations are still reluctant to embrace it – anticipating lower productivity and difficulties in managing staff who are no longer all in one place at the same time.

However, technology has done much to address these concerns – the Internet, mobiles, laptops, smart phones, email, social networking, Skype and remote working have all combined to make it far easier for individuals and groups of people to communicate effectively and quickly – regardless of their geographical location, time zone or seniority within an organisation.

There’s now considerable evidence to show that the benefits of flexible working far outweigh the potential downsides. Benefits for employers extend well beyond the obvious lower office costs to include reduced carbon footprint, savings on heating, lighting and waste disposal, though to cutting transport costs and expenses. There may be some initial expenditure involved in purchasing equipment for home and remote working, but these are often far less than the costs associated with city centre offices.

Many UK organisations have seen significant benefits from their flexible working policies: BT has reported over £40m saved in accommodation costs alone. An office with 1500 employees in central London could save £6m a year on real-estate costs by replacing fixed desks with flexible working, according to Philip Ross, CEO of UnWork.com who advises on the future of work.

Over and above the obvious cost savings, the most compelling argument for flexible working is its ability to motivate staff and improve productivity. Many organisations have reported significant improvements in productivity, employee happiness and well-being as a result of such policies. Kellogg’s has operated its Summer Friday policy for the past eight years because 82% of its employees said that it motivates them and they felt happier at work as a result.  54% of the respondents in a recent survey by mobile operator, 02 said that flexible working helped them strike a better work/life balance and 52% said that it also boosted their productivity.  In a recent YouGov survey, around 30% of British workers believed that flexible working improved productivity and almost half (43%) said it reduced stress at work. Similarly, HSBC has reported that its flexible working policies had resulted in a 300% increased in women returning to work after maternity leave.

In addition to helping motivating staff, flexible working can also be highly effective for recruiting and retaining key staff.  In difficult economic times, where salary increases may not always be possible, a highly flexible working environment could be an effective alternative. For many staff, remuneration is not the only criteria on which they judge their existing or future employment. Working parents – or those with significant commitments beyond their work – can find a highly tailored, flexible working arrangement more beneficial than a large financial reward which offers no element of flexibility.

As a direct result of moving to a more flexible way of working, many organisations find that their office and equipment needs change too. Whilst the number of fixed desks (and the associated costs) may decline, there has been a dramatic increase in hot-desking and virtual office solutions to meet these changing demands.

As a serviced office provider, Business Environment (BE) has seen this first hand; its virtual office and meeting solutions have become increasingly popular with companies looking to use its centres for multiple team meetings, as well as for clients. Additionally, for smaller companies, BE’s ability to provide a complete virtual office has proven particularly effective: “We often work with small companies whose employees all work at home” commented Steve Moore, BE’s marketing manager “Our virtual office service gives them credibility and a central London location whenever they need it, but it also allows them to work very flexibly – wherever and whenever they need to, whilst also keeping their costs to a minimum.”

Whilst not every organisation has fully taken to flexible working, it’s increasingly difficult to ignore its all-round benefits. Given the current economic climate, the continuous need to improve productivity and reduce costs, it’s likely that most businesses will adopt flexible working to a lesser or greater degree within the foreseeable future.