8 Feb 2012

O2’s flexible working pilot ahead of Olympics

As mobile phone provider O2 launches a major trial in the run-up to London 2012, Channel 4 News looks at why flexible working is good for people and good for businesses.

In anticipation of disruption to its workforce during the London Olympics this summer, the O2 mobile phone provider has initiated a day of flexible working for employees at its Slough offices.

The company’s European HQ is shutting as staff operate and work from home or elsewhere. O2 hopes the pilot scheme will offer a blueprint so workers are not forced to travel across a potentially congested transport network once the games have begun.

But the scheme should offer other benefits as well. Ben Dowd, O2 UK’s business director, told Channel 4 News: “In terms of productivity, one of the things that comes out is that people who are flexible workers are 15-20 per cent more productive because they’re happy with the responsibility they’ve been given to get on with the work themselves.”

Better, productive employees

O2 is by no means alone in identifying the benefits of a less rigid approach to work. The core principle of flexible working is that every employee is subject to demands outside work, and that he or she becomes a better, more productive employee when the employer recognises those demands.

Flexible working takes many forms. The government’s Directgov website cites flexitime, homeworking, term-time working, structured time off in lieu, compressed hours, part-time working and job-sharing, among a long list of options. “Working flexibly,” it says, “can bring many benefits to your work-life balance.”

Indeed, UK employment law goes some way to recognising this by granting particular groups – parents and carers – the right to a flexible working arrangement from an employer.

‘Good for people, good for businesses’

The extent to which such practices have been embraced by British businesses is shown in a recent Confederation of British Industry survey. It found that the vast majority of employers (96 per cent) offer at least one form of flexible working, while nearly three-quarters (70 per cent) offer three or more types.

People who work flexible hours tend to be more engaged and committed. Mike Emmott, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

Among the benefits cited by firms in the CBI poll are improved employee relations boosting recruitment and retention, improved productivity, and lower absence rates.

Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, told Channel 4 News: “Flexible working is good for people and for businesses. When you ask about employee engagement, satisfaction and commitment, the people who work flexible hours tend to be more engaged and committed.

“They’re saying they’re happier, and the organisation gets more out of them.”

Inflexible working

Not all forms of work are amenable to flexible working. Workforce activities in the engineering sector – indeed, anything that involves major capital investment – are determined by the equipment involved.

Shift work notwithstanding, there is significantly less flexibility in heavy manufacturing. Transportation and logistics are similarly constrained.

The health sector also relies on human contact. Nurses and health workers cannot simply work at any time of the day or night, according to their needs. A core staff must be present at the workplace.

Retail services often require the employee to be present when the customer is there – although the growth of online shopping means there is less emphasis than in the past on fixed outlets.

Psychological contract

And the fact that the service sector – involving the provision and exchange of non-physical assets – accounts for 70 per cent of British economic output, puts this country at an advantage in developing less rigid work structures.

“A lot of us work in environments where we work from nine till five or from 10 till six,” explains Dr Wilson Wong, senior researcher with the Work Foundation. “A lot of that work is desk-bound and computer-based, where the exchange of information is through pieces of paper or email.

Flexible working means stress levels can be self-managed and you have lower instances of absenteeism. Dr Wilson Wong, Work Foundation

“For those jobs, flexible working offers real benefits to businesses. It means stress levels can be self-managed and you have lower instances of absenteeism because employees can work around their needs. Those needs may be very mundane, ordinary things, but it makes all the difference for a member of staff.”

Dr Wong says his research into the “psychological contract” at work confirms that flexible employment encourages all employees – but particularly those in family units – to believe they have greater autonomy and a genuine ability to shape the way they work.

Not that home working is ideal for everyone. Celia Donne, regional director at Regus, a multinational office workspace provider, is at pains to emphasise the benefits of working away from home. “90 per cent of workers do not want to work from home [according to research by Regus], and in many cases it is impractical for them to do so,” she says.

“Staff want to work away from home to get into the mindset for working – to benefit from the motivation and stimulation when there are other people working around them, to use the change in scene to shift into work mode and to avoid domestic distractions.”

Globalised economy

In a globalised economy that crosses time zones as well as continents, the advantages of having staff who are prepared to work from home at any time of the day or night are obvious.

Dr Wilson Wong explains that even his own employers, the Work Foundation, enjoy such a benefit.

“Some of our researchers have to call their counterparts at midnight,” he says. “Because of our flexible working policy, the staff know that if they’re working at midnight, they can come in the next day at lunchtime – or not at all.

“They’re happy to make those changes to their work pattern because we’re not counting hours.”

And UK businesses adopting such practices enjoy a reciprocal response. When clients realise that the company they are working with is flexible and customer-orientated, they respond in turn by showing a greater willingness to cooperate.