Work – a Thing You Do, Not a Place You Go

As organisations rethink their business strategies, enabling home/flexible working will be the only solution to recruiting staff, facilitating the work/life balance and, critically, ensuring business as usual during the expected flu pandemic argues Graham Chick, chief executive, GemaTech.

For years commentators have been advocating a broader adoption of home or flexible working to address a myriad of issues created by the 24×7 society – from reducing the cost of the road and rail infrastructure (and associated carbon emissions) to enabling single parents, carers and the disabled back into the workforce. Yet in 2006, society still firmly adheres to the increasingly uncomfortable strategy of commuting on overcrowded roads and in cramped trains to a place of work.

Not only is this approach outdated, unproductive and expensive but it is an extraordinary business risk. From the escalating cost of fuel to the anticipated flu pandemic, those organisations insisting on office based employees for all jobs, from individuals to senior management, are in for a shock.

With schools and public transport shut down to prevent infection, employees simply will not be able to get to work. Enabling flexible and home working is not just the only sensible solution to society’s current challenges but also a failsafe approach that will enable real continuity in the face of forthcoming business and economic upheaval.

Flu Future
According to the government’s own chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, it is a matter of when, not if, a flu pandemic develops over the next few years. And, when such a pandemic occurs, within a matter of weeks the world will have fallen into a sustained period of business disruption, with illness and death on a scale that will overwhelm health resources worldwide.

At the first sign of a pandemic, governments will close schools and public transport in a bid to minimise viral transmission, whilst businesses will have to shut off air conditioning units to prevent circulation of contagion. Immediately, whether they are ill or not, employees will be unable or unwilling to make it to a central office. And business will, effectively, stop.

This will be particularly felt by the call centres, typically staffed by a high proportion of female workers who tend to take primary caring responsibility for both children and elderly relatives. How long will the business survive if customers and suppliers cannot make contact to place orders, discuss payment plans or request information on new products or services? How much money will be lost and what will be the long term brand damage if customers go elsewhere?

Yet there is no reason why organisations should be reliant on workers being able to physically access a central location. Many successful companies today have been built on the effective use of remote workers. Indeed, Travel Counsellors has grown from a four person start up in 1998 to an AIM listed, 400 strong organisation today by leveraging a highly dispersed remote workforce. So why are so many UK businesses, many struggling to recruit adequate personnel, still resistant to this approach?

Taking Control
Of course not all individuals relish the idea of working from home. For many the office is both escape and social life. Yet few enjoy the daily commute which now averages 139 hours per year according to figures from the University of the West of England. Most are struggling to manage the demands of the 24×7 society which has created a huge number of shift workers. It is little wonder that the health implications of both shift work and long commutes are raising increasing concerns at government level.

Nor do all managers like the idea of losing control by allowing workers to operate remotely. But this perception of lost control is outdated. The technology is available today to remotely monitor every aspect of employee activity – from voice recording to keystroke monitoring. Activity can be analysed in detail and, if required, on-screen actions can be matched to a voice recording to deliver complete insight into and control over the remote working process.

Indeed, a call centre manager has exactly the same level of control over the remote workforce as a centrally located workforce. So why force individuals to make an expensive and stressful journey to a central location every day?

Business Transformation
Providing the facility for remote working should not just be part of some business continuity strategy, designed to swing into action at the first sign of a long petrol queue or excessive sniffing. It should be a standard component of the working environment.

The technology is available to automatically redirect direct dial numbers to an individual’s location – whether that is at home or, if preferred, small local business units. And individuals need to get used to working this way today. Providing the option for home working but only allowing it in the face of potential economic disaster is a dangerous policy: individuals will have had no opportunity to come to terms with the new way of working. In a high stress situation such as a flu pandemic, they are unlikely to adapt fast.

Just as London’s banks ensure dealers regularly operate from the standby hot site to ensure familiarity in the event of a disaster, organisations need to begin to use this technology today. This will enable a gradual progression towards flexible and home working and ensure they are prepared for future business disruption.

However, simply bolting on a remote working solution to the existing telephony infrastructure will not deliver the flexibility or cost reductions required. Indeed it will simply add cost, as some organisations have already discovered. To truly adopt new working practices organisations need to invest in telephony technology that has been designed specifically to support flexible working, from easy DDI call redirection to voice recording. It is only with the right, cost effective, infrastructure in place that organisations can really begin to leverage the benefits of the new working environment.

Working Shift
Widespread home/flexible working represents a major shift in working patterns – albeit one that provides major economic, environmental and social benefits. And it needs careful handling. Yet by providing every employee with the option of home working – with perhaps a weekly visit to an office for social interaction being required – organisations can transform productivity, drastically reduce costs and, critically, expand the potential workforce.

This latter fact is becoming ever more important as UK organisations recognise the value of onshore call centres for customer facing services. Indeed, while companies continue to offshore business processes such as finance to India, an increasing number are actively advertising the availability of UK based call centre personnel in a bid to win back disenfranchised customers.

But just where are these new call centres to be built and staff recruited? There is a huge untapped labour force of single parents, carers and the disabled unable to travel great distances to work yet with excellent skills that could be invaluable to the UK economy if able to work from home.

There are no technical barriers to enabling this fundamental shift in working practices. But it needs commitment at both business and government level. To date the UK government has done little more than tinker around the edges of numerous ‘flexible working’ policies that have simply failed to deliver.

Rather than invest in over used rail and road networks and ‘back to work’ initiatives, surely it would be far better to provide business incentives to enable home or local based working practices that would reduce travel, boost local communities and deliver social inclusion policies? Furthermore, it would ensure that, irrespective of flu, fuel or terrorism, the UK could continue business as usual. Surely that is a policy worth advocating.