Flexible working put to the test Article icon

Flexible London 2012 brought an estimated four million people to London, closed 30 miles of road and added half a million journeys on public transport, prompting companies to consider the benefits of flexible working

Not many companies tell their staff to stay away from the office but that is exactly what O2 did back in February when the mobile phone operator asked workers based at its Slough headquarters to work remotely. The exercise, which involved more than 2,500 employees, was designed to help prepare O2 to cope with any transport disruption arising from the Olympic Games. But the initiative was also more than that.

On releasing the results, business director Ben Dowd said it had 'exceeded expectations', adding: 'Our pilot proved that people can do their job without being confined by office walls. Flexible working can drive productivity, further sustainability aims and benefit employees all at the same time.'

O2 calculated that each employee had saved, on average, 45 minutes which would otherwise have been spent commuting and about £3.60 in travel costs. Collectively, that added up to as much as 2,000 commuting hours and, taking into account the empty car park, the equivalent of driving 42,000 miles in a medium sized diesel car.

More importantly, perhaps, 88 per cent of staff said they were at least as productive as on a normal day in the office, while 36 per cent found they were more productive than usual.

The key to the success of the pilot was inevitably technology. As Dowd says: 'Technology was inevitably right at the heart of our flexible working experiment, enabling those who needed to get online and communicate to do so. This included using the network to share documents,discussing projects over Instant Messaging and hosting meetings via our Microsoft Lync system - along with a host of other activities.'

But this was a single, albeit large, organisation testing homeworking for just one day. The Olympics tested flexible working policies more broadly, as UK businesses across the London region allowed more staff to work from home for the duration of the Games.

This combined effort will lay the principles of remote working bare, not least because it will make new and far greater demands on technology, bandwidth availability and network security. In addition, the Olympics provided a prime opportunity to test the one thing that employers distrust most about flexible working: the ability for employees to work from home effectively when there is considerable cause for distraction.

Revealing time

'The problem is that, however well prepared businesses might wish to be, they were dealing with what was, essentially, an unknown scenario.' says Michal Stein, knowledge lawyer at Nabarro. 'In particular, many businesses were unable to predict with certainty whether the Olympics would bring increased or decreased levels of activities and no-one could say with certainty how the transport system would cope with the expected number of visitors to London.'

Many businesses embraced caution throughout the Olympic Games, implementing more flexible working initiatives to minimise disruption. It will be an eye-opener into what works and what doesn't. And for some it will be easier than others.

For example, professional services firm PwC approached the Games with confidence - nodoubt because the nature of the business allows some room for manoeuvre. 'We didn't have a blanket policy for the London 2012 Games. It was more about local arrangements and people managing their clients and workload,' says Steve Sherwood, PwC's head of business operations. 'PwC is a highly flexible employer and this flexibility allows our staff to exercise discretion over when and where they perform their work, subject always to client deadlines.'

In practice, this meant that affected staff were able to agree flexible working options with their managers and business unit leaders in advance of the Opening Ceremony. Some agreed to start work earlier or later while others chose to work at a client's offices or at other PwC sites. PwC already had established systems and processes for working remotely - including from home - the process should have been relatively seamless.

'Ninety eight per cent of our firm work on laptops, so no matter where they are working they are contactable and accessible in the normal way during office hours - that is, logged into the network, office phones diverted to mobile, using Sametime messenger system,' says Sherwood.

PwC also takes full advantage of tools such as its online web-meeting system, which it rolled out late last year.

Many companies worried that user overload during the Olympics could cause online systems and mobile networks to go down. Sherwood explains that PwC has a comprehensive business continuity management programme which has been designed and tested to deal with any business disruption, as well as dedicated website communications and a 24/7 information phone line staff can access to get updates on any issues that could affect business operations.

Risk factors

It all sounds pretty comprehensive and a fairly solid best-practice approach for other companies looking to implement some level of flexibility across business operations. If problems did arise during the Olympics, there was the comfort of knowing that summer months tend to be quieter times for professional services firms. The challenge is more complex in other industries.

The banking sector, for instance, needed to ensure branches remained open and fully staffed which required making sure relevant employees could get into work but also that systems were also able to cope with any additional pressures.

Last November, the Financial Services Authority held a market wide test to ensure that UK financial institutions were able to restore business as usual should they encounter multiple system failures, including the Internet, telecoms and wholesale and retail payment systems going down. The test - in which banks such as HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds and the Royal Bank of Scotland participated - included the effectiveness of getting critical staff into the right place to get systems up and running again in an emergency.

But the banking sector is also keen to demonstrate its progressive attitude to flexible working policies. Statements from the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and HSBC both attest to a strong flexible working culture that they claimed would help carry them through any obstacles connected with the Olympics. Some Royal Bank of Scotland staff worked from home on the 'exceptionally busy' days, highlighted by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, but there were additional staff in potentially extra busy branches and the bank also worked to ensure cash machines were well stocked throughout the Games.

A spokesman adds: 'Flexible working is already part of our culture within RBS, so this is not particularly new for our employees. Our IT systems allow some staff to access their work from a home computer securely. Our employees are aware of the transport challenges and some will arrange to start work earlier or later to avoid the peak hours. We will also make use ofsome offices located outside central London.' The bank also built a dedicated microsite on its intranet to provide staff with additional resources and information.

A similar statement from HSBC also refers to a 'large percentage' of its London-based employees working remotely or changing their working patterns during the Games.

Of course, there is a huge difference between the bank staff required to man high street branches and those whose jobs suit remote working. But while the banks are still mired in a huge reputational crisis, the  distinction may not count for much. Banks will have to be incredibly careful to balance remote working with the need for them to be seen at work. With NatWest's recent systems glitch that shut down its banking services still fresh in bank bosses' memories, they will be desperate to avoid any damaging perception that workers were 'chilling out' at home in the event of a recurrence.

Changing perception

And that's perhaps the chief problem with flexible working. The fact is that many people still think that home-working meansskiving or being glued to Jeremy Kyle and Under the Hammer. When Whitehall announced that civil servants would be allowed to work from home for seven weeks during the Olympics and Paralympics, business leaders were reported to have 'reacted with dismay' warning that it would send out a 'dangerous message' that Britain would be closing down for two months. A report in The Times warned: 'Some Ministers are concerned that the government's work rate will drop, giving an impression of 'slacking' while the country is mired in a double-dip recession.'

Whether the Olympics really will provide the opportunity to finally demonstrate the merits of flexible and home-working will depend on the abilities of managers across all sectors to overcome these many and varied complexities and prove the naysayers wrong.

The communication challenge

Success requires good preparation, clear policies, effective communication and a hands-on management style geared to the unique challenges of remote working. Those most likely to get it right will have a good flexible working framework already in place. Nabarro's Stein suggests how this might look:

• A formal remote working policy that staff can easily access and fully understand.

• Clear requirements for flexible working in terms of working days and hours (for example, agreement on whether staff working remotely will be expected to adhere to normal office hours). 'Attendance' verified as necessary.

• The availability of adequate equipment to work remotely - most obviously, laptops. In addition, an IT system and other infrastructure that can cope with the varied and increased demands of remote working.

• Clear understanding as to who owns work-related materials if staff are allowed to use their own devices. And minimum conditions as to virus protection, security, data protection and confidentiality. Well-prepared companies are likely to have also considered related expenses (for example, who is responsible for phone and broadband bills).

• Compliance with normal employment and health and safety duties in relation to remote-working staff. 'Out of sight must not mean out of mind,' Stein concludes.

Businesses that most benefited from flexible working throughout the Olympics and beyond will be those that have in place an effective approach to the ongoing management of remote workers. 'Employers need to strike a balance between too much contact and not enough, showing that they trust staff to complete their work, while ensuring that they don't feel entirely cut off from the rest of the organisation,' explains Victoria Sykes, consultant at Fishburn Hedges. 'It's also important to  recognise that everyone works differently, so managers have to tailor their contact strategy accordingly.'

This means agreeing minimum levels/ways of keeping in touch with team members, which is complemented by day-to-day liaison and collaboration as if they were all in the same room. All of which is helped, suggests Sykes, if companies have harnessed the ever-growing array of collaboration channels and mechanisms to work together. 'Managers should also remember to continue to share and celebrate the performance and productivity of their people, no matter where or what hours they are working,' she adds.The Games provided 'an opportunity rather than a threat', which Sykes argues should have been 'used as a way to bring people together and enhance relationships between employers and employees'.

Companies that were successful in doing this will be those that planned well to combine effective management communication strategies with sensible and clearly-written policies for remote working.

They are the same companies that had the best chance of using the Games to finally prove that flexible working can work under even the most pressing conditions. By doing so, they have the chance to take UK businesses one big step forwards to changing working culture for good.

But they will still be up against those companies that made few if any preparations for the disruption caused by the Olympics. They may have found staff forced to work from home because they were unable to get into their offices - but without the facilities, clear policies or management processes to back them up.

That will combine with those companies that genuinely struggle despite their best efforts - because they face greater sector-related complexities in achieving true flexibility. Any ensuing chaos would merely reinforce the prevailing perception that flexible working in fact means shirking.

Which side will ultimately win remains as yet unclear. But as the Olympics unfolded, this was one competition that Team Flexible Working needed to win.