In the quest to achieve that corporate holy grail of increased productivity
and staff morale, flexible working has gained much ground as a win-win option.
This has been backed by a number of credible research pieces reporting the fact
that companies have derived tangible commercial benefits from remote working
programmes that allow selected staff to work away from the confines of the
It’s still a long way from being the rule, but it’s no longer the exception
and, thankfully, we have long moved on from the “road warrior” days when sales
staff were equipped with mobile phones the size of bricks and laptops bigger
than family-sized cars. In addition to greatly improved technology, legislation
designed to improve workers’ work-life balance has pushed the case for flexible
working among UK office monkeys.
But this inexorable march is now in danger of faltering because fears about
losing control of their people is driving a pervasive shift among managers to
rein in their flexible working policies.
Those dark-age managerial Luddites still lurk, as does their paranoia that
commercial secrets are at risk because a member of staff may drink one shandy
too many and leave a company laptop in a lap-dancing club. And it is true that
issues such as security fears and increased support costs associated with
out-of-the-office staff have traditionally been factors inhibiting mobile access
However, such issues are now generally well understood and, for most
companies, can be solved in a satisfactorily cost-effective way, taking
advantage of tumbling values and costs in the technology area as, for example,
mobile phone operators fall over themselves to sign up companies to 3G data
contracts. New data from broadband comparison website Top 10 Broadband notes
that mobile data charges, although still high compared to traditional wired
connections, are actually less than one-tenth of what they were two years ago
when they averaged £45 per gigabyte. All this means rapid return on investment
is possible for all but a tiny handful of mobile working deployments.
But, psychologically, there is a stumbling block. According to a new study
from Microsoft, the number of workers who believe they can work flexibly is
falling. But this has nothing to do with technology. The research attributes a
recent fall in the number of staff working flexibly to the credit crunch. People
feel they need to be seen to be working, perhaps as recession talk stokes the
fear of redundancies. Based on interviews with more than 1,000 UK office
workers, the survey claims that fears about job security and the overall
deteriorating economic outlook are prompting workers – especially middle
managers and their minions – to turn away from mobile working, with just 10% of
workers in 2008 feeling they have the freedom to work remotely as part of their
day-to-day job. This despite the fact that more than half of all UK firms offer
mobile working programmes.
The danger is that, while these workers force themselves to come into the
office so they can wave hello to their bosses and moan about the rubbish coffee
from the company vending machine, morale will go out of the window at a time
when that would be least helpful to all.
The survey goes on to reveal that one-quarter of senior managers say they
would leave their job in six months if they could not work remotely. A further
quarter of all UK businesses report having lost staff as a result of not being
able to offer mobile working opportunities.
Another poll published earlier this year found that remote working is a key
factor in staff retention. Of 3,000 workers polled across Europe and Russia by
communications firm Avaya, around one-third said they would “definitely change
jobs” to work for a firm that actively encourages and supports flexible working.
Even as technology continues its advance and becomes cheaper with more
competition, this ‘win-win’ scenario of increased productivity and happier staff
by way of flexible working is under real threat. Faced with dire economic
straits and afraid of losing our jobs, we are in reverse. The lose-lose scenario
is emboldened by economic negativity and it seems personal freedoms, such as the
right to work from home and have your boss trust that you are indeed working as
hard as you might in their presence, are the first casualty.
To counter this threat, businesses must refocus on the human factor and
actively encourage flexible working when it can demonstrably improve
productivity. In these times of economic uncertainty, enterprises need to
squeeze every drop of efficiency from their operations and flexible working can
help do that. It is nothing short of madness to let operational effectiveness
suffer because of a misguided adherence to old-fashioned working practices. It
is time for savvy companies to grasp the nettle and reassure worried staff that
out of sight does not mean out of mind.