(2004), "Flexible productivity", International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, Vol. 53 No. 5. https://doi.org/10.1108/ijppm.2004.07953eaf.007
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Many organisations are attracted by the claimed productivity benefits of remote, mobile and flexible working – lowering the demand for office space, and reducing travelling time (or turning it into productive time). Many employees are also attracted since they see it as offering greater flexibility and perhaps giving them greater control over their work-life balance.
The trend towards mobile and remote working seems to be unstoppable. According to market research company IDC, already, at least 2.2 million people in the UK work away from the office, using IT tools to keep them in touch with clients, employers and colleagues.
The savings from reducing office space alone are claimed to more than cover the cost of implementing a unified, mobile and remotely accessible IT and communications infrastructure for many organisations. Take the case of BT. They have enabled 7,000 employees to work exclusively from their homes, and have released a further 60,000 to work flexibly between their homes and an assortment of shared offices. The result? BT has saved around £230 million in property costs in the past ten years, reducing its London properties from 15 to five as part of the process.
Surrey County Council, which used BT to help build a flexible working IT infrastructure, cut its capital costs by about £4 million, when it enabled 3,700 of its 23,000 staff to work flexibly at home and in shared offices. The council reduced its 74 offices across the county to just 19, also cutting the space in each of these by half. Total saving after allowing for the cost for the new IT infrastructure and reorganisation was £23 million.
These impressive costs savings are attractive, but flexible and remote working is not without its risks, which must be balanced against these potential gains. Implementing appropriate technology is the easy part of a project. The difficulty is in changing the business processes, even the business model, and the culture.
Morale and productivity can fall if remote employees feel alienated and unappreciated, where cultural cohesion is scarce, and where distrust and suspicion run high among managers as they try to lead a workforce that they rarely see.
It is clear that the line between work and personal time can easily become blurred. However, in many cases it is the employee and not the employer who causes such changes to happen. It is the individual’s choice to work when they want, and where they want – they can always switch the phone and laptop off.
Few companies can work entirely without an office. US-based computer reseller and services provider Compucom allowed the majority of the company’s sales and support staff to become home workers as part of a cost cutting drive several years ago. The strategy was sensible, given that the teams were spread across the entire country, and they spent most of their time out of the office meeting clients.
But as Dave Hall, Compucom’s chief technology officer, explains: “We didn’t anticipate the need to have face-to-face meetings and share our experiences and knowledge”. Without any offices left in many locations, Compucom has resorted to hiring hotel conference rooms or carrying out meetings at client locations. It is not ideal, but Hall claims the cost is still negligible compared to the savings Compucom made on cutting its property portfolio.
Successful flexible working requires employees to feel that they are in control over their work schedule. However, this needs a new style of management, and developing this is not always easy. In fact, managers and team leaders are often the most difficult employees to convert to a flexible working environment.
Typically, cultural resistance revolves around issues of territory – some managers do not like the idea of moving from a private office into an open plan environment – but the main issue is the one of managers having to learn to trust that employees are working when they are out of the office. Managers need to be able to trust that work due on Friday will arrive, even if it is not in their in box on Thursday night.
Performance monitoring also changes. All flexible working organisations agree that managers need to judge flexible workers by their output, not their input – by the work they accomplish rather that the time they put into it. Such a focus on outputs means that it is easier to judge performance based on true ability.