UK government considers flexible working laws for parents

In May, a government-commissioned review of flexible working recommended an extension to the current laws regarding the right to request variable hours or opportunities to work at home from their employers.

The independent review, which was headed by Sainsbury’s human resources director Imelda Walsh, concluded that parents with children aged 16 or under should have the option to request flexibility.

Flexible working is a catch-all term to describe any working pattern that is adapted to suit the needs of the employee. Common types of flexible working include part-time or flexi-time working through annualized, compressed or staggered hours, job sharing or homeworking. Any of these can be combined to produce a pattern that works for both the employee and the employer. Legislation regarding flexible working currently comes under the Flexible Working (Procedural Requirements) Regulations of 2002, which came into effect in 2003.

Currently, the law states that working parents with children aged six or under, or up to 18 if the child is disabled, have the right to request flexible working and to have that request seriously considered by their employer. The government has accepted the Walsh group’s recommendation, and in fact has gone further, stating that the right to request flexible working will apply to all parents with children aged 17 or under. The new interpretation could kick in as early as April 2009. This could benefit 4.5 million parents and cause a big headache to unprepared organizations.

From setting up a telephone and internet connection for part-time workers to installing videoconferencing facilities, it’s clear that ICT will play a large role in developing flexible working practices, leaving CIOs with the choice of either dealing with the problem as and when it occurs, or taking a more proactive stance.

One company that’s gone for the latter option is BT. The telecoms giant’s BT Workstyle is one of the biggest flexible working projects in Europe, involving almost 80,000 staff, 14,000 of whom work from home. The company uses an impressive list of technologies to enable its employees to take up flexible working, with everything from dial-up to 3G and Wi-Fi connections supported and all traffic carried using advanced encryption standard (AES) and triple data encryption standard (3DES) to ensure security. Home-based employees can plug into the BT network using the BT iDisk platform which requires an ActivCard remote access token. The token confirms a user’s identity and gives access to permitted applications. BlackBerry devices, VoIP, hotdesking and on-premise laptop access are also granted.

Establishing a relationship with key stakeholders was important. David Dunbar, head of Workstyle at BT Global Services, says: “By taking a holistic approach across IT, HR and property, we delivered some impressive benefits.”

One of these benefits was bringing the BT intranet to remote workers. Access to information is crucial to any business and making employees feel they remain part of the organization is a key element of successful homeworking. Dunbar says: “The intranet was critical, not only in ensuring that people could keep in contact with colleagues but also in communicating with the heart of the business and reinforcing BT values, so that remote employees still felt part of the BT family.”

Making people feel a valued part of the company and keeping them motivated was also a concern of Mark Sutton, IT director of Freedom Direct, one of the UK’s largest independent travel agents. The company, which is based in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, took the decision to increase homeworking six years ago when the proportion of staff working from home was about 10 percent. Today, a quarter of employees work full-time from home, which, for some staff, means as far away as Australia.

Home and away

Providing the right support for remote staff was critical to making the flexible approach work. “Our homeworkers have inductions and training at head office and are included in staff meetings and company outings to help them feel part of the team,” Sutton says.

With homeworking and remote working there is always the risk of staff becoming disengaged from the company’s aims. Freedom Direct addressed this problem by providing dedicated managers and IT personnel specifically assigned to deal with remote staff. “If you don’t allocate responsibility for support, there’s a risk that home workers’ needs get sidelined, which can be demotivating,” explains Sutton.

Another company to have adopted flexible working is networking firm Avaya. The company was keen to lower costs, get a better return on investment and improve working conditions and productivity. After a study to find what people needed, the company decided to pre-empt government regulations and offer the working terms to all 900 of its UK employees.

Martyn Lambert, Avaya’s vice president of marketing, acknowledges the importance of a sense of inclusion and says the company learned as it went along that workers appreciate mixing time at home with time in the office. Avaya now offers two options: staff can work core hours in the office (11am to 3pm in order to do the school run or other regular tasks) and the rest at home, or spend some days in the -office and some at home.

Lambert says: “Avaya staff never spend more than two consecutive days working from home. They might spend two days at home, one day in the office and then two days at home again.” More than this and it’s “too solitary — cabin fever sets in”, he believes.

The flipside of keeping staff motivated is monitoring their performance: what happens when workers are over or underworked or their remote work simply isn’t up to scratch?

Freedom Direct’s homeworking management team monitors remote staff. Freedom’s Sutton worked with Totem Communications to develop an inbound call-handling system, which knits homeworkers into the company’s call-center operation. According to Sutton, this helps the company tune into calls and check which home workers are logged on or off. It also helps in measuring productivity against targets.

Freedom Direct also uses a VoIP service. This, says Sutton, allows the company to monitor homeworkers’ calls and record them for training and quality-control purposes. “This was an option that was previously only available for call-center staff,” he says.

Homeworkers are given objectives and metrics, against which they are monitored every six months. “We don’t clock people on and off in the office,” says Lambert. Instead, it uses Microsoft Office Communicator to monitor who is online. In time it will bring online Microsoft’s presence detection server that will “take things to the next level”, according to Lambert, allowing managers to see not only who is online or offline but also who is temporarily unavailable.

Overworking is sometimes cited as an issue with homeworking as staff can sometimes overcompensate for not being in an office by enduring long hours. The Avaya system will give managers a way to spot employees who are overdoing things.

Avaya found that workers must be able to “mimic the office environment”, Lambert says, but this raises security issues. Laptops are targets for thieves and Avaya has rigidly enforced security measures to protect data. Users have a system logon and a network log-on, which requires encrypted access to the virtual private network (VPN) and has to be changed monthly. Failure to do so means being locked out of the system and requires a call to IT. Also, files are archived onto the central server rather than being saved on individual machines.

BT acknowledges that security must be built in from the start. In addition to the ActivCard remote access token to authenticate user identities, laptop users connect to the BT network using an IPSec VPN connection that manages network permissions using randomly generated passwords. Laptops can be backed up remotely using BT’s Datasure service so that, if information is lost, users can dial into the Datasure server from a different machine and download data.

Another potential problem area is health and safety as an employer has the same responsibilities towards homeworkers as office-based employees. This might mean carrying out risk assessments in employees’ homes, ensuring that any equipment used there is fit for purpose and workers know how to use it properly, making sure lighting levels are good enough and that there are no trailing cables — in fact much the same rigmarole as in an office. Also, homeworkers who use computers regularly are entitled to have their eye tests paid for by the company.

Avaya’s Lambert acknowledges that part of providing a safe environment for homeworkers includes insurance. Avaya’s flexible-working package aims to clone the office environment in the home, and this includes extending insurance to cover homeworkers.

Despite the complexities of all this, the advantages to employers, even beyond restoring work-life balance to staff, are clear. By 2005, BT was saving more than

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