Phil Flaxton is Chief Executive of Work Wise UK, a not-for-profit initiative backed by the TUC and CBI, which promotes smarter working. Work Wise UK provides consultancy services and support to implement smarter ways of working, bringing together experience and best practice from the public, private and third sectors and collaboratively link with government agencies, professional bodies and trade unions to support and implement the broader use of smarter working as a modern day approach to working life. Phil has been CEO of Work Wise UK since 2006 after ten years as CEO of InterForum.
“…Being managed on output is about not being location sensitive, but being task driven. So if you’ve got a report that has to be produced in so many days or there’s a piece of work that has to be done, whether you get that done in two days or four days, providing it’s produced on time, then it’s not about where you do it. It’s the fact that you can do it from anywhere…”
Phil, please can you tell us a bit about the background to Work Wise UK?
We came about back in 2005 when the Labour government at the time commissioned a report by Peter Gershon (published as The Gershon Review). They commissioned him to look at ways in which flexible working could be implemented across central government. I was working at InterForum at the time, already working with the TUC and the CBI, the Chambers of Commerce and so on. I had a conversation with some of those organisations at the time to say that flexible working needn’t just be restricted to UK Government, although the report was primarily produced for them.
The conversation we had was that the way we work is going to change and this is open to UK plc and those employed in the UK. That was where the idea for Work Wise UK came about to create a non-profit making initiative which would help businesses (employers and employees) understand the benefits to them of working smarter.
What sort of organisations do you work with?
It’s a pretty broad church. We work with central government and with departments like DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). We’ve also worked with large corporates, with local authorities and probably to a lesser degree, SMEs (perhaps the larger of the small business enterprises as opposed to micro businesses). We’ve helped a very wide range of organisations over the last ten years.
There’s a lot of interest in flexible working at the moment, but not everyone is clear about the terminology. Please can you outline what the main types are?
The term ‘flexible working’ has been around for decades. We’ve found references to flexible working going back to before the Second World War. The term is a label that’s been given to people working in a non-conformist way.
We’ve come up with the term ‘Smarter Working’ because ‘flexible working’ encompasses different aspects. You’ve got the term ‘flexible working’ and then there’s ‘flexi-time’, ‘flexi hours’, ‘flexi working’, ‘condensed working hours’, ‘homeworking’, ‘remote working’, ‘mobile working’. There’s even a term now called ‘agile working’. What we’ve done is to say if you’re doing any of those things, whether it’s multiples of those things or just one or two of those, you are, in effect, working smarter.
We’ve come up with this umbrella title that we think captures all of the different aspects of flexible working.
‘Agile working’ has really come about in the last couple of years. These things seem to go in trends and many of the large corporates now talk about ‘agile working’, but if you go to the likes of O2, Vodafone and those types of organisations, they talk about ‘smarter working’.
What are the main benefits and challenges for employers?
The benefits, providing it’s implemented in the right way (what we call a ‘smarter working strategy’), are that it can help with:
- A reduction in staff absenteeism;
- Productivity by increasing productivity levels;
- Efficiency levels;
- The environment if people are not driving and clogging up the roads to get to and from work there is an environmental benefit.
What we find is that the challenge for a lot of organisations is to make sure that they get the strategy right. We often talk to organisations and they say, “We’ve already got a smarter working policy” or a flexible working policy, but when we identify what that is, and this is often the case with smaller employers, it basically comes down to; “Derek has asked if he can work from home one day a week and June said to help out with her child-minding she’d like to come in a couple of hours late three days a week.”
To us, that isn’t the right way to go about this. It has to be far more structured and to do it efficiently and effectively you really do need to do a number of things. To give you a couple of examples, if you’re a large employer, ensuring you do staff surveys to find out what the staff think. Do they want to work smarter? Not everybody does.
Also to really ensure that you’re retraining line managers to manage their staff on output, not input. There is a distinct difference. We have a culture in this country, which we’ve had for over a century, a culture of presenteeism, where you go to a place of work, typically Monday to Friday, nine to five and you’re assessed on what you do while you’re there.
Being managed on output is about not being location sensitive, but being task driven. So if you’ve got a report that has to be produced in so many days or there’s a piece of work that has to be done, whether you get that done in two days or four days, providing it’s produced on time, then it’s not about where you do it. It’s the fact that you can do it from anywhere.
Line managers don’t always trust their staff to work based on output, not input. It’s kind of “out of sight, out of mind”. If I can’t see you sitting in the office sitting at your desk, how do I know you’re not skiving off? How do I know you’re working? But I often say to people, who work in open plan offices, who might have 60 or 70 people sat out in front of them, “well how do you know they’re working?”
Just because you can see them, I don’t think that carries any credence. They could be booking their next holiday, they could be talking to their Auntie Winnie in Australia. We do come across that quite a lot, where there is a fundamental lack of trust, but that comes back to retraining your line managers to manage their staff efficiently and effectively based out outputs.
It is a culture change. Not all businesses need to do this. This isn’t a one size fits all. It’s more suitable to some organisations that others. With the advancement of technology, even in the last three years, we’re finding an increasing number of employers are looking to adopt smarter ways of working to manage their workforce in a different way. That can be a win / win situation for both them and their employees.
And what about for employees?
With smarter working, employees can feel they’ve got a better work / life balance. Many people now juggle responsible jobs and also a very hectic home life, perhaps with children or an aged relative, maybe having a long commute.
All these things add up to stresses and strains on an individual and work / life balance is important for people. A lot of responsible employers recognise that and feel that if they can implement Smarter Working in an efficient way, then they will see absenteeism rates fall.
People are less inclined to look for alternative employment, productivity can increase, efficiency can increase and of course ultimately, that can increase competitiveness and it can be very beneficial financially to the organisation.
What about new ideas like shorter working weeks?
The UK has one of the longest working weeks in Europe. We work longer hours, we tend to take less structured breaks. A lot of people work at their desk over lunchtime and they just grab a sandwich and carry on working, and many people work late, so I think there is a culture in this country of people working longer hours and that can have a detrimental effect, not only on them but also on the company ultimately.
If employees want to make a case for flexible working, how should they do it?
There is now legislation that came into effect on 30th June this year where everybody has got the right to request flexible working. Up until the change in legislation, it was only parents with children up to the age of 14 or people who were caring for an aged relative or somebody with a disability who could request the right to work flexibly.
Now that new legislation has been introduced everybody has the right to request it, but it isn’t an automatic given that because you ask for it your employer is legally bound to give it, but they have to have a pretty cast iron reason to refuse it.
This is where a high degree of sense comes into play, because if you’re going to say, “I’m not a morning person, and I hate getting up at 7am and trudging into the office for 9am, I’d really like to get up an hour later and come in at 10am,” that really isn’t sufficient grounds to request flexible working. But if you are somebody who has childcare responsibilities or you need to drop children off before you come into the office or you need to attend to a relative or somebody, then that is sensible grounds.
It comes down to common sense really. We’ve already come across cases where it’s been refused and disgruntled employees have gone to Acas or to their trade union to fight their case. Obviously if they’ve got a genuine case it will be assessed on its merits, but generally speaking now the legislation has come into effect, we’ve all got the right to request flexible working.
What sort of employers use it?
One of the shining examples, and they have been doing it now for 12 – 14 years is BT. 14 years ago they took a decision that they were going to substantially reduce their property portfolio throughout the United Kingdom and that they would effectively close down and sell off a lot of the properties that they owned. These ranged from local telephone exchanges right the way up to multi-storey buildings in key cities around the country.
Currently BT employs about 77,000 people in the UK, of which around 66,000 work from home. That’s quite an achievement really. Although their normal place of work is at home, when they need to attend an internal meeting or meet with clients at a BT office they can book a desk space (the old term for it was ‘hot-desking’) or reserve a meeting room. Over the years BT and its employees have achieved significant benefits, which include; increased efficiency and productivity, reduction in absenteeism, increased work/life balance and a reduction in overheads.
Another one is the RAC, where they now (and they’ve been doing this for several years) have a number of virtual call centres. And increasingly a number of organisations with call centres in the UK, rather than having these big buildings, typically up in Scotland or the North East of England, are now employing call centre operatives who are home based.
They have the technology at home and if you broke down on the motorway, and you phoned through for help from the RAC, the chances are it will go to an operative handling the call who’s based at home. He or she will then put the call through to the roadside assistance van who will come and help you. And he or she will be based at home too.
British Gas is another one. Years ago their engineers would have depots where they would leave their van at night and they would pick up their spares and their worksheet for the day or the week. They don’t do that anymore.
They’ve got technology now where they work from home, so their worksheet for the next day or the next couple of days is emailed to them. When they need to come in and pick up spares they go into a local distribution centre or the parts are sent to them. That’s another example of how smarter working is now creating increased mobility and remote working.
What sort of savings can employers make?
I think the CIPD quoted a cost saving per employee of up to £14,000 p.a. It depends on where you’re based in the UK. If you’re based in London or the South East with property costs being what they are, it will be more than for example less densely populated parts of the UK.
There are over 29 million people working in full-time employment in the UK. Not all of them can work smarter. If you drive a lorry or you’re a nurse or you work on an assembly line, you can’t do that from home, but for those sort of people there are things like flexi hours, three day working weeks, nine day fortnights and shift rostering.
The cost of technology has continued to fall. It used to be that a desktop computer would cost £9k. But all technology, whether it’s things we buy for our homes for personal use or what businesses buy has come down; the cost of tablets, the cost of laptops, the cost of mobile phones. You can buy a smartphone now for as little as £160. We’re increasingly living in a connected world where price is no longer a barrier to entry.
So will transport infrastructure improvements like HS2 and HS3 be needed less in future?
Particularly in the South East, the way we get to and from work is typically by public transport or by car. There hasn’t been sufficient investment in either the road or rail infrastructure over the last 40 years. The M25 is constantly being worked on and sections are being widened to cope with the increased flow of traffic, and likewise with the rail operators who are having to meet the demands of a substantial increase of commuters in recent years.
If HS2 is going to go through your village or town, that’s not a good thing for the individual that it’s going to affect, but in order to compete with other European countries, bearing in mind our landmass is a lot smaller than a lot of European countries, we do need to ensure that we have a transport infrastructure that fits the demands of the 21st century.
What projects do you have coming up at Work Wise UK?
We’ve got a new website that’s being constructed that will be launched early in 2015, which will include a number of new features such as a self-assessment productivity tool for employers. Next year marks the tenth anniversary of Work Wise UK. We run an awareness campaign every year called Work Wise Week and National Work from home day, which is part of the week. It is always in May and next year it will be two weeks after the general election.
In the run up Work Wise Week we will be doing a number of things with organisations that we currently work with and also media awareness events to celebrate our tenth anniversary and also take a retrospective look at what’s happened over the last decade. We’ll also try to do a bit of a navel-gazing look into the next ten years – how we could be working in 2025, so next year is going to be quite a year for us.