By Bill Murphy, Managing Director, BT Business

At BT Business we find businesses, customers and employees are demanding greater flexibility in order to thrive in this increasingly networked world. The traditional nine to five, Monday to Friday routine is no more and instead flexibility, agility and responsiveness have become the watchwords for the way we do business today.

With the contribution of £180 billion* to the UK economy from employees working outside traditional nine-to-five hours (the equivalent to the total annual output of London), the UK workforce is recognised as one of the hardest working in the world. The number of people working non-traditional hours will hit 35 per cent by 2027, with the “five-to-nine” economy doubling to £450 billion. Making effective and productive use of our time is essential, not only to gain competitive advantage but also to help maintain a positive balance in our lives.

Importantly, flexible working is no longer the preserve of larger organisations. In fact, recent research from the British Chambers of Commerce shows that 89% of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) already offer flexible working arrangements, and BT Business research found that 59% of Directors of small businesses believe they can embrace flexible working just as successfully as large organisations.

For smaller businesses, flexible working offers a number of benefits, not least of which are those relating to recruitment and access to skilled employees. By adopting flexible working, businesses can retain skilled employees with other commitments and have wider access to skills outside their catchment area.

Whilst some journeys are unavoidable and there will likely always be a need for face-to-face meetings with colleagues, advances in technology ensure that there are increasing opportunities to utilise audio and video conferencing for meetings, webinars instead of seminars, and online training — which all combine to make flexible working increasingly attractive to the value of the flexible working economy. And small businesses are no longer priced out of these technology solutions. The addition of an Office Anywhere handset or a broadband connection can make a world of difference and this short term investment will reap long term productivity gains.

According to BT Business research, each week 2,000 people start up a new business from home and the UK’s smaller businesses recognise that flexible working policies can positively impact on their organisation, with 65% citing staff motivation and 50% increased productivity as key reasons to adopt them. It is in response to this growing market that BT Business is constantly striving to identify solutions for the SME community. After all, SME owner-managers should be free to get on with doing what they do best —managing their business rather than worrying about IT. In this increasingly faceless business world, SMEs are able to compete like never before with their larger counterparts and BT Business’s new online community offering for SMEs, Tradespace, is a perfect example of what we’re doing to ensure that SMEs are able to share best practice and compete at this level.

Legislation introducing the statutory right to request flexible working has proven a huge success, helping many people to change their working patterns. 47% of new mothers now work flexibly (compared to 17% in 2002), and employers accept four out of five flexible working requests. Last September the World Bank ranked the UK as the best EU member state for ease of its employment law+.

In order to meet, and balance, these increasing demands on our time, employers and employees are actively seeking more flexible approaches to how, when and where they work. Research shows that, of the 28.76m UK working population, 3.1m (11%) are ‘home-workers’ — defined by as ‘people who work mainly in their own home, or in different places using home as a base.’$ In addition, almost 60% of women and over a third of men would like to work from home one or more days per week according to a recent survey conducted for BT Business++.

And the benefits extend beyond recruitment and staff retention. Flexible working can mean a more effective use of a company’s property portfolio and provide significant cost benefits. For a company with a highly mobile or geographically dispersed workforce, it can also produce more effective and productive collaboration.

The ability to work flexibly is also rapidly becoming a pre-requisite for many job seekers. A DTI survey found that 70% of today’s graduate job seekers were looking for the chance to work flexibly. Almost half considered it to be the most important benefit an employer could offer**. Flexible working is great in supporting diversity, and in helping those with physical disabilities to take an active part in the workplace.

Being offered a flexible working policy by their employer is of similar importance to both men (39 per cent) and women (43 per cent) with over half recognising the core benefit as being able to achieve a better work life balance. Others see flexible working as creating less stress whilst some believe it will create fewer travel problems for them$$.

As a company defined by its increasingly mobile workforce, BT Business understands the business and employee benefits flexible working can bring. BT has seen cost savings of
over £220 million in the last 10 years from real estate costs alone. Travel costs have been reduced by £9.7 million per annum and the return to work rate after maternity leave is 99%, more than twice the national average of 47%.

With the right combination of secure infrastructure, systems and support any organisation, regardless of size, can now ensure its employees can work together effectively, wherever they are.

To find out more about what BT Business is doing in the area of flexible working, please visit us online at: businessclub.bt.com

* Centre for Economics and Business Research
+ DTI Transformation of Work Report 2007
$ National Statistics, Labour Market Trends, October 2005
++ YouGov research commissioned by BT Business, 2006
** Business in Britain, DTI, December 2003
$$ BT Convergence Report, 2006

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