Juggling not struggling

Nov 10 2006 by Kate Milner Print This Article

UK bosses are missing out on the huge benefits that flexible working can bring to their businesses, explains Kate Milner, WebEx Communications.

From October 1 this year, the right to request flexible working hours is extended to carers of adults in the UK, reflecting the dramatic shift in working patterns that have taken place over the past decade.

Moreover, the increasing cost of living means that more people have to - and indeed want to - work, particularly women who now form almost half of the UK's workforce.

But despite the fact that parents with children under the age of six have been able to request flexible hours since 2003, many businesses are failing to educate their staff on flexible working rights, or take steps to encourage them to take up these rights.

According to research we conducted recently, six out of 10 of the UK's working parents are unaware of their right to request flexible working. Even more of a concern, our research revealed a gender gap in the UK's flexible working practices, with almost half of working mothers reporting a rigid attitude to working hours from their employers.

Furthermore, seven out of 10 women are not given the option to work from home compared to six out of 10 men.

It seems the need for organisations to adapt to a change in working patterns has been largely ignored, although the technology to enable flexible working is now reliable, cost-effective and widely available.

As a result, working parents are forever struggling to juggle the demands of work and home and are often left feeling unable to do either 'job' properly.

In too many organisations, a culture of old-fashioned long hours and presenteeism still prevails. And it is costing the UK dearly. Government figures show that despite working the longest hours in Europe, our productivity levels are one of the lowest, and stress-related sickness costs British business around £12 billion every year.

UK employees are crying out for more flexibility on how and where they work, and yet employers are clinging to a Victorian desk-bound working ethic. Organisations must wake up to the fact that flexible working makes good business sense for both employers and employees.

Flexible working is not the latest gimmick in working practices, but a serious trend that has emerged from the need to cope better with the demands of modern society.

The benefits of flexible working for employees, particularly working parents, are clear. They can be more in control of their workloads, avoid the stress of commuting at peak times and achieve a better work-life balance, thus boosting their morale and their productivity levels.

But flexible working doesn't just make sense for working parents, it benefits their employers too. Our survey showed that if British businesses allowed their staff just one day of flexible working a week, the nation could potentially gain around 38.8 million working days a year. It also allows organisations to attract and retain a skilled, highly motivated and more diverse workforce.

As the UK strives to maintain its competitiveness in the face of global competition, the current lack of options for parents who want to work is reducing the skilled pool of labour available and creating extra costs. For example, if just one in 10 non-working mothers returned to work after maternity leave, employers could save up to £39 million a year in recruitment costs alone and reduce turnover rates.

Many businesses are reluctant to introduce flexible working practices because they are concerned about the practical implications for their business. However, the incredible advance of the Internet and mobile technology over the last ten years, coupled with the demand for more cost-effective and efficient ways of operating, means that flexible working practices have never been easier to implement.

The proliferation of mobile communications now available make it easier for employees to make better use of 'dead time', such as their daily commute, allowing them to work when they want, wherever they want. And now, virtual, collaborative communications, such as web meetings and online workspaces, are coming to the fore, giving parents, and indeed other employees, the tools to truly embrace flexible working practices.

Increasingly businesses are also are investing in remote access technologies to enable employees to work as effectively from home as from the office.

And working from home has other important knock-on effects. For employees, it cuts out the journey to work and its associated costs at a time when British workers are spending more time and money than ever travelling to and from the office.

The national daily commute is also a major cause of environmental pollution. Offering staff the chance to work from home one day a week would help reduce carbon emissions as well as giving staff a day off from commuter hell, allowing them to work more efficiently.

Our research suggests that around half of parents have missed an important family occasion due to work, yet nearly half believe the clash could have been prevented with the right technology.

It also revealed that a third of workers would be prepared to contribute towards flexible working technologies from their own pockets and a quarter would sacrifice their annual pay rise for the chance to work from home for one day a week. One in 10 even claimed they would use the time saved on commuting to do more work!

But while flexible working is clearly high on employees' agendas, it now needs to move up the priority list for employers. It not only makes good business sense, but it could be the answer to a happier, more productive workforce.

Although there are initial cost implications for businesses, the payback is definitely worthwhile, with 84 per cent of managers stating their flexible working arrangements were cost effective according to the Workplace Employment Relations Survey, 2004.

So if UK plc wants to remain competitive, it should stop clinging to the old-world convention of office working. Adopting a less rigid approach, and embracing 'virtual' technology, will not only increase productivity, but also boost morale. Giving staff the choice about where, when and how they work will allow them to spend more time with their families, creating a healthier work/life balance.

About The Author

Kate Milner
Kate Milner

Kate Milner is EMEA Director of Marketing at WebEx Communications, which provides software-as-a-service applications for collaborative business on the web.