Graham Chick argues the case for organisations to adopt a more flexible approach to remote working for employees
Why do so many companies have such a strange approach to flexible working? Many of them, especially those in the financial sector, are waking up to the need to put in place contingency plans for remote working in the event of a flu pandemic, but how many are considering that if it will work in a crisis, it could work all the time? Why are they not leveraging always-available voice and data communications technology to deliver quality customer service while offering staff the flexible working environments that are proven to improve productivity?
Indeed, why do so many companies keep expensive office locations, when intelligent call routing technology can reroute even geographic direct dial calls for up to 10,000 people to home or remote locations across the country, in a process that is transparent to callers?
Flexible working will be essential if organisations are to continue to operate effectively during a pandemic. So why not leverage the business continuity investment to drive down overheads, improve the working environment and adopt flexible working as standard business practice?
Over the past decade, disaster recovery and business continuity plans have become increasingly sophisticated. However, such plans typically revolve around the loss of a building due to flood, fire, theft or terrorist attack, with complex arrangements designed to rehouse critical staff and provide rapid access to data and telephony systems off site.
However, with the threat of a flu pandemic that could affect a high proportion of the working population, the building is not the problem - it is the people. There is a clear need to put in place technologies that can enable remote working to minimise infection rates while mitigating business risk.
Indeed, while an avian flu pandemic would fall under one of the four categories of operational risk defined by the new Basel II banking regulations, it is highly unlikely that the business continuity plans put in place by banks to date would hold in the event of a pandemic.
At the first sign of a pandemic, many individuals will opt to stay at home in any event - choosing to be with and look after their families - despite what the best laid corporate plans may dictate. Indeed, it is expected that the initial response of civil authorities will be to discourage large gatherings of people. If organisations want to achieve business as usual they must put in place solutions that provide not only access to key corporate data resources, but also achieve a telephony solution that can replicate an office environment when staff are scattered across multiple remote locations.
Without doubt, if and when an avian flu pandemic hits, the authorities will strongly recommend home working. And while many companies can encourage - even support - staff to adopt broadband at home to enable access to core data systems, distributing the telephone calls is a tougher challenge.
And those opting for Voice over IP (VoIP) as a simple solution will be disappointed: VoIP currently offers neither the security nor resilience to support business communication.
What is required is a solution that can automatically forward calls made to the traditional head office number - or individual direct dial numbers - to staff in their new location, wherever that may be. Furthermore, it also needs to be able to intelligently forward calls to a colleague, should the intended recipient be unavailable.
Critically, this technology must be easy to use and set up, enabling organisations to remotely change call forwarding numbers and employee locations at the touch of a button. Furthermore, by locating the solution within the telephone exchange - a location that requires technical resilience of 99.999% up time - an organisation also has a solution in place to cope with traditional business continuity requirements.
Employees should be encouraged to work at home intermittently to test the technology and their ability to communicate effectively with their co-workers. But if organisations are prepared to put in place facilities to enable employees to work from home in times of disaster or crisis, why can this same technology not be deployed on a day-to-day basis?
There is surely no justification for limiting remote working to those deemed suitable for Blackberry or other mobile devices. Yet, in the traditional office hierarchy it has become a mark of seniority or a boon of promotion to be provided with the tools to work outside the traditional office environment.
Yet organisations continue to endure poor productivity as staff undertake ever longer commutes and struggle to adequately combine the work/life balance, a problem that leads to increasing levels of time off due to sickness or long-term ill health. Furthermore, the expensive office location represents a major overhead for many organisations. Does this make any kind of commercial sense?
It is, however, understandable. As many start-up companies have discovered, offering potential customers or suppliers a mobile number as contact raises immediate warning signals. Other businesses like the comfort of an office address and geographic number. They also prefer the low cost geographic number to the far higher costs incurred when calling the location-independent numbers, which also have a whiff of suspicion about them.
With technology that can reroute even geographic numbers, however, the problem is overcome. An organisation can retain, if required, a smaller central office location - which will also support those individuals who prefer an office to home working. But the rest of the employees can be distributed across other lower cost offices or at home as required.
Even small organisations that prefer employees to be office-based for most of the time, can use this technology to manage staff time more effectively - enabling home working on the day of a hospital appointment, for example, or in response to a rail strike.
When, not if
While the scientific experts believe it is a question of when rather than if a flu pandemic will arrive, businesses cannot wait to put in place solutions to ensure business continuity. So why waste this effort? Flexible working should not be a perk. It should be just one more way organisations work effectively to meet contractual obligations. With the ubiquitous deployment of broadband and good firewall technologies, the data component has become straightforward. Now, with the ability to replicate office based telephony across multiple, often changing, locations, organisations can begin to explore the value of flexible working in day-to-day business.
Graham Chick is chief executive of GemaTech, Tel: 0845 345 3333, www.gematech.com
WHY CHOOSE FLEXIBLE WORKING?
- In the event of a flu pandemic or major disaster the business continuity plan goes out of the window: employees will opt to stay at home.
- The cost of modern office working is high. Consider factors such as upkeep or leasing costs. Also consider the number of business hours lost through commuter delays as all employees attempt to travel to the same central location.
- Business continuity solutions already exist to allow flexible working in times of crisis - why not lever these solutions to become more efficient as an organisation?
The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has published the first results of a large-scale survey in 21 EU member states on working time and work-life balance in European companies.
Key findings include:
- Flexible working time arrangements are in operation in almost half (48%) of workplaces with 10 or more employees in Europe
- The degree of working time flexibility varies greatly between EU countries.
For example, working time arrangements allowing the accumulation of hours are practised in more than 50% of establishments in Finland and Sweden, but in only about 10% to 15% in Greece, Portugal or Cyprus
- Some 61% of managers state that higher job satisfaction results from the introduction of flexible working time arrangements
- A better adaptation of working hours to the workload is reported by 54% of managers
- Lower absenteeism (27%) and a reduction in paid overtime (22%) are other positive effects mentioned by managers
- Employee representatives confirm the assessments of managers in those workplaces where both were interviewed.
A detailed overview report on the findings of the survey will be published in the first half of 2006. Further in-depth analysis of selected topics will follow in the course of this year.
For further information, visit www.eurofound.eu.int/areas/worklifebalance/eswtfindings.htm