By Louise Adeline, Three

Flexible working has come a long way from the days it meant sliding off early on a bit of a skive, taking a pile of papers with you as cover. It’s now an established part of the way we work in the UK, with 12.8% of the workforce now mainly working from home*, let alone all those who work on the move.

But are we getting as much benefit out of flexible working as we could? You hear talk of now being the golden age of flexible working, but the latest research shows UK businesses have a way to go yet.

For a start, the idea that you can be as, or even more, productive working away from the office as in is far from accepted. There’s still a lingering belief that you need to be seen in the office to prove your commitment to your job. Almost half (41%) of office-based employees say they feel pressure to be present and visible in the office because of the economic climate and just over a quarter (27%) felt their performance is mainly measured by the time they spend in the office.**

Making flexible working work for your business involves a change in culture – away from presenteeism and ‘command and control’ ways of managing, and towards measuring success by outcomes, wherever they’re achieved. For most businesses this requires a shift in culture to a trust-based form of working. This is hard for everyone involved, at all levels in an organisation, particularly if flexible working is still a bit of a buzz word and not fully understood. There’s a real danger that diligent flexible workers’ achievements and morale will end up undermined by the office-based worker’s belief that ‘working from home’ is code for an easier and lighter day.

It looks like changing to a flexible working culture will be tough for UK businesses because the office-based way of doing things is so entrenched. We know that emerging markets, who are building flexible working into their culture as they develop, have higher numbers of flexible workers than countries with more established economies (where the office is still king).

But, we are making progress in our transformation. In the UK right now, 52% of employees and 39% of employers feel flexible working boosts their productivity.** Over 90% of UK employers say they offer some kind of flexible working practices, and three out of every five new UK jobs don’t have fixed hours or fixed places of work.*** On top of that, 41% of UK businesses are now home-based***.

So the cultural change is doing just fine – but it’ll be of little use if it’s not backed up by the right technology to make it a clear, positive business benefit. Making flexible working perform for you starts with working out exactly what tools you and your people need to work as well as possible – and then providing them; there should never be a divide between a ‘tool rich’ office base and a ‘tool poor’ away-from-office worker.

We’re talking far more than email. You need to give your people access to all your office systems – securely and with ease – wherever they are. Connectivity is the key; there’s no point having the tools if people working away from the office can’t use them. So mobile communications specialists should be your first port of call for help in finding you work-anywhere solutions, rather than traditional hardware and software suppliers.

So how will we know when flexible working really has ‘arrived’ in the UK? Perhaps the best marker will be when we don’t talk about it, we just do it.

* Labour Force Survey, 2010.
** Future of flexible working survey coordinated by O2, 2011.
*** Office for National Statistics and Department for Business Surveys.

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