As the government suggests that flexible working could be extended to all parents with children under the age of 18 in 2011, Virgin Media Business has discovered a significant gap in the abilities of small and large companies to meet this challenge.
Its study of 5,000 businesses employing up to 250 people showed that only 14 per cent of SMEs, which collectively provide jobs for 22.8 million people in the UK, allow their staff to work flexibly or from home. Virgin Media Business commissioned this research to measure just how fundamentally small and large companies differed in their readiness for rolling out flexible working policies. This was prompted by a separate poll of the FTSE 100 which revealed that 69 per cent of the UK’s largest quoted companies enabled staff to fit their jobs around personal commitments.
Yet while the new flexible working legislation has been criticised as unnecessary bureaucracy in some quarters, Virgin Media Business’ research revealed administering these programmes was the least of SMEs’ difficulties. Only 11 per cent of the 5,000 businesses it questioned said they were put off flexible working by the need to set up new HR processes. Instead, employers were far more concerned about teamwork and worker welfare, with 43 per cent fearing that distributed teams would be less effective and leave the individuals within them feeling isolated and stressed.
Cost was also seen as a significant barrier to the adoption of flexible and remote working among SMEs. Nationally, 29 per cent of businesses felt that the technology required to roll out such programmes effectively was too expensive, rising to 41 and 39 per cent among businesses in the Yorkshire and the North East respectively.
Yet when it came to saying how they benefited from flexible working SMEs, like the FTSE 100, said such policies helped them to retain and engage their workforces. 42 per cent of respondents said that flexible and remote working improved employees’ work-life balance, and encouraged staff who might otherwise leave, such as new mothers, to stay with the company. Other businesses were more excited by the operational benefits of distributed teams working flexible hours. Here 21 per cent believed this made it easier to deal with out-of-hours work more easily, while 19 per cent thought this would make workers more productive.
Commenting on the research, Virgin Media Business’s executive director, commercial, Andrew McGrath, said: “Given the vast difference in scale and infrastructure between a company employing 100 people and one employing 100,000 it was inevitable that we’d discover some big differences in their approach to flexible working. Yet with millions more people about to gain the right to request flexible working it’s an issue that’s going to face businesses of all sizes.
The good news for SMEs, however, is that the technological difficulties and expense associated with rolling out these schemes even a few years ago are a thing of the past. In the days of affordable, high speed broadband, cost-effective laptops and smartphones there’s no reason why remote or flexible working programmes should be expensive or difficult to implement. When coupled with superfast fibre optic networks available nationwide, remote working could, by doing away with the commute, help businesses and employees use their time far more effectively. And with tools such as instant messenger, presence, videoconferencing and teleconferences now widely available, there’s no reason for remote teams to lose cohesion or for workers to feel left out on a limb.”