By Paul Lawton, General Manager of SMB at O2 Business

Easter holidays can be a difficult time to manage staff schedules and holiday calendars for small business owners. It doesn’t matter whether you have a workforce of five or fifty, there’s a risk of being left with staff shortages and increased pressure on employees trying to balance work with looking after the kids.

In order to minimise that risk, it’s worth thinking about how you and your employees can implement flexible or smarter working practices. Recent legislative changes around employees’ rights to request flexible working from their employers is a good place to start. According to our research just over half (54 per cent) of UK workers are actually aware of the right to request the legislation, yet only a fifth (23 per cent) have taken advantage of the option .

Interestingly IBM conducted some research a few years ago, which revealed that 67 per cent of employees who had the option of working flexibly felt they had an improved work/life balance. Businesses offering remote working also benefitted from a 20 per cent jump in workplace productivity and a 20 per cent decrease in costs.

These results reflect our own experience at O2. Shortly before the London Olympics we conducted the UK’s largest flexible working pilot, shutting our head office and asking the entire workforce based there (around 2,500 people) to work somewhere else for the day. O2 employees saved 2, 000 hours of travel time, with the majority spending this extra time with their loved ones.

The pilot was a really rewarding experience for us, as it showed how working smarter and more flexibly can not only improve staff morale but also make a genuine impact on our bottom line by increasing workplace productivity. Over a third of staff said that they were more productive than usual, while 88% said their productivity was just as good.

Affordable technology already exists to allow businesses of all sizes to implement working practices such as these. Initiatives as simple as choosing laptops or tablets instead of desktops for your employees are a good place to start. Similarly installing software such as Microsoft Office 365 or Box, cloud-based office and collaboration systems onto these devices mean staff can work wherever they are.

It’s also important to make sure your employees are as connected as possible, whether it’s through a secure broadband connection or a fast 4G mobile service. The benefits of mobile working mean that employees can respond to emails at the school gate, conference call in the park and make free calls in WiFi zones using apps such as TuGo.

Small businesses are often more agile than larger ones so implementing flexible and smarter working policies early can keep costs down and employee satisfaction high. Happy staff provide great benefits to any business, including a higher rate of staff retention and a reduction in absenteeism, as well as improved customer satisfaction.

However, it’s also important to foster an environment where this type of working is accepted and this needs to be led from the top. Over the last few years, smarter working has become a common practice at O2 – and it really has been driven by a significant change in our culture. For those looking to replicate this, here are some of my top tips for implementing it in the workplace:

- Training: provide adequate training for managers and team leaders to ensure the arrangements are managed and implemented in the right way. Be realistic with what work can be done flexibly, as well as when and how it can be done

- Trial periods for staff: Choose certain segments of the company to trial and then rule out any problems

- Identify senior role models to work flexibly to ensure the process isruns smoothly

- Allocate mentors to share similar experiences and provide support and guidance

- Conduct regular reviews of staff undertaking the flexible working programme and amend where needed

This Easter holiday is the perfect time to trial out some smarter working initiatives in your own business. Instead of struggling through the weeks with a depleted team, seize the opportunity to test run your staffing plans for the summer holidays, or even Christmas 2015.