By Peter Boucher

Earlier this week the new CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, sparked controversy by banning flexible working at the company. However, as Peter Boucher explains, flexible working has it's clear advantages to businesses of all sizes.

With the practice of flexible working very much back in the news, there is obviously still some debate about the benefits of flexible working. For some, the practice is mistakenly seen as an excuse for employees to stay at home and avoid work, which reduces output and ultimately cost businesses money.

However, for so many companies, creating a more flexible workforce and office environment can make for a leaner, more agile business, which, at a time of economic uncertainty can mean the difference between struggling and succeeding.

Especially when profit margins are under severe pressure, businesses are constantly looking for ways to keep their costs down. One of the biggest overheads that many companies have is the cost of renting office space and equipping each individual member of staff with a fixed desk, computer and phone. Our own calculations have found that this costs around £12,000 per person per year.

With staff so often out of the office, either at external meetings or working from another location, businesses are often paying for empty and unused desk space. By introducing flexible working policies that include staff being given laptops, smartphones and not being tied to a specific desk, businesses only need to rent the amount of office space they actually need on any given day — usually about 7 desks to every ten members of staff. This can significantly reduce the amount of money they spend on rent.

Quite apart from the potential cost savings, a more flexible approach to working can have a positive effect on customer satisfaction. In a world where great customer service is increasingly seen as a huge competitive advantage, the consequences of an unhappy customer can be catastrophic. Indeed, industry analysts Ovum estimate that UK companies lose around £15 billion annually as a result of poor service. And our own research has found that 85% of people avoid companies they have previously had a poor experience with and 62% of people will not deal with a company they’ve heard offers poor customer service.

In the middle of a recession, the need to acquire and retain customers has become even more acute. Flexible working creates a more responsive business, better placed to fulfil the ever-changing needs and increasing demands of customers. Enabling staff to work from anywhere at any time means businesses can react instantly to customers, but if staff have to travel back to the office to answer queries, the opportunity may have already passed - which can cost the company dearly.

With the rise of the tech-savvy and social-media obsessed Generations Y and Z, who expect instant gratification and are less patient, the need to respond quickly is amplified. These ‘millennials’ are also bringing their expectations into the workplace, where they are driving big changes in the way we work. Recent research by Vodafone found that young people currently entering work now expect flexible working as standard. They expect their work life to fit around their home life — and vice versa. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg recently referred to this new reality as the ‘work-life merge’. When asked, a third of people even said that the ability to work flexibly was as important as financial benefits such as salary or a pension. At a time when the job market is squeezed and top talent is at a premium, offering flexible working is an easy way of attracting top talent.

As well as helping to attract the right talent mix, these better ways of working can make for other benefits. By getting rid of ‘presenteeism’, where staff are judged on how many hours they spend at the office and moving to a more results-focused culture, businesses can significantly boost the productivity of their staff. In the same research, about two-thirds of managers said, when questioned, that they expected a more productive organisation as a result of putting flexible working practices in place. Three-quarters of the employees surveyed said that having access to flexible working options also boosted job satisfaction and improved work-life balance. All these make for a more efficient business and a happier workplace.

There is growing evidence that flexible working is not just a ‘nice to have’ benefit. Rather, these better ways of working can bring serious commercial benefits which can significantly boost a company’s competitiveness in today’s busy and overcrowded marketplace.

Peter Boucher is the Commercial Marketing Director, Vodafone UK

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