IT Employment

Flexible working: Five top tips for bringing it home

For the IT department, successful flexible working is not just about getting the tech right. One CIO with over a decade of developing flexible-working policies offers five key pieces of advice.

You need systems in place to prove people are more productive in or out of the office. Photo: Shutterstock

The 2012 Olympics have not just been about sporting excellence. They have also provided a useful test case for CIOs looking to establish an effective flexible-working strategy.

Businesses across the UK capital were warned of severe travel congestion in the run-up to the event. Many London-based companies saw the Games as an opportunity to create a flexible-working strategy, and to implement the technologies and policies that allow employees to complete tasks at home.

Some CIOs already have a long-standing interest in new employment practices. Toby Clarke, IT director at insurance specialist Abbey Protection Group, is a passionate advocate of flexible working. In line with legislative demands, the firm has spent the past decade honing its strategy.

"Flexible working is not simply about getting the technology right," says Clarke, who draws attention to a series of performance, support and leadership concerns. Here, Clarke provides his top five tips for CIOs looking to establish increased flexibility.

1. Prove performance to the people at the top

Clarke's first piece of advice to other CIOs thinking of establishing a flexible-working policy is to concentrate on metrics. While collaborative technologies and support services will help employees interact, CIOs must be able to tell C-suite executives how flexibility creates benefits for the business.

"Understand how you will measure the success of your policy," says Clarke. "We have put systems in place that allow us to prove our people are more productive in or out of the office."

The method of performance measurement depends on the line of business. Most of Abbey's home workers are lawyers giving out legal advice to customers by phone. Productivity, in many cases, is as simple as measuring the number of calls made.

Without establishing the right metrics, worker performance will not be correctly judged, and senior executives will not be able to monitor the success of the policy. "You must get your targets right before allowing flexibility," says Clarke.

2. Support workers and replace kit quickly

Increased flexibility will not be an effective aim if mobile workers are unable to log in to enterprise systems. Clarke says IT support services for flexible workers are absolutely crucial and he has advice for CIOs looking to target increased mobility: "Get your ducks in line early."

Attempts to increase flexibility are confused by new demands from workers who want to use their own devices for work. However, 11 years of pushing flexibility at Abbey lead Clarke to conclude that his system - where kit is replaced if it is not fixed by employees in a certain time period - provides a successful support model.

"Democratisation, in terms of supporting kit, is crucial," he says. "We offer telephone support for workers who use their own devices for work. If the kit can't be fixed, we'll replace the technology - but the workers lose their right to use their own devices."

Clarke also uses virtual desktop infrastructure, allowing employees to log in to applications via a central remote server. The approach means the quality of hardware used by remote employees is less important, as the central server handles data processing.

3. Recognise that presence really matters

A decade of dealing with flexible employment leads Clarke to believe that isolation is one potential downside of working from home. For this reason, he says, presence really matters.

Clarke uses the unified communications platform Microsoft Lync to give workers access to a series of collaborative tools. Access to such presence-based technology enables workers to collaborate through instant-messaging, multitask during client calls and be aware when their manager is available for contact.

"People at home can feel isolated and presence allows our remote employees to work as part of a team," says Clarke, who says unified communications provides other benefits, such as giving individuals the ability to work collaboratively on documents.

Clarke adds that the firm's experience of flexible working has taught it that certain employees are particularly suited to home employment. One key group is post-natal returnees to work, who benefit from the freedom afforded through flexible arrangements.

4. Find a business reason for new working practices

Flexibility is an important component for the digital workplace but increased mobility should not be viewed as an end in itself. Clarke warns other CIOs that attempts to boost flexible-working options must be introduced in line with agreed business outcomes.

Clarke says Abbey started looking at flexible working because it was keen to take advantage of a particular talent pool, such as women lawyers with school-age children. Recent changes to employment legislation require businesses to consider worker requests for flexibility.

"If you're a CIO who hasn't thought about your strategy, you really must start thinking at the earliest opportunity," says Clarke, referring to the legislative demands. "You can't just say 'no' to one person and 'yes' to another. That's a tribunal waiting to happen."

Understand the legislative position, says Clarke, and work out your underlying business reasons for introducing flexible working. "That reason might be because you want to reduce your office footprint, but it needs to be better than just bringing in flexibility because an employee has asked," he says.

5. Make sure senior managers support your strategy

Manager buy-in is absolutely essential for a successful flexible-working strategy, says Clarke. He says downtime is likely to be longer in terms of a technology failure, and managers need to understand such delays.

"Your business needs to be able to cope," says Clarke. One strategy, he says, is to tie the flexible-working policy to business continuity plans, so that workloads can be spread around the distributed team in the event of capacity concerns.

More specifically, Clarke says having a distributed workforce removes your business's reliance on a centralised office. In the event of a network failure at the head office, flexible employees can still keep working.

"That approach provides massive benefits in terms of the low cost required to add new users," says Clarke. "You have already been through the pain of flexible working and can start concentrating on business benefits."

About

Mark Samuels is a business journalist and editor at IT leadership organisation CIO Connect. He has written for various organisations, including the Economist Intelligence Unit, Guardian Government Computing and Times Higher Education.

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