Does flexible working really spell the end of the office?

Flexible working is a concept over which people and businesses are divided. The notion of attending an office eight hours a day has long been the status quo. But is that all set to change?

Recent Citrix research revealed that the UK is on the verge of a flexible working ‘tipping point’: next year, working away from the office will become more common than working solely from a desk in a traditional nine-to-five role. The report also predicted that more than 70% of organisations will implement flexible working policies by 2020.

In its simplest form, flexible working can result in higher levels of employee engagement from a happier workforce. This, theoretically, translates into better customer service and productivity, meaning greater output and efficiency.

But while these represent what may seem like micro-gains for individuals, flexibility is not just of benefit to employees – there is a genuine business case for the enterprise, and cultural and economic gains for the nation.

Another recent Citrix study, commissioned with the Centre for Economics and Business Research, found that greater flexible working could add £11.5 billion annually to the UK economy, with flexible working allowances potentially saving workers £7.1 billion in reduced commuting costs and over half a billion hours spent travelling.

>See also: Why 2016 will be the year that flexible working is fully embraced

Flexibility comes in two key forms: when we work and where we work. In industries where demand fluctuates, such as retail and hospitality, having a flexible workforce means that staff can better be aligned to demand – resulting in tighter control over costs.

In other industries, flexibility can mean less money spent on overtime – as workers have the benefit of taking accrued time off instead.

‘From a place-of-work perspective,’ says Neil Pickering, industry and customer insight manager at Kronos, ‘if more staff are working at home it means organisations can operate with smaller work environments, resulting in cost savings or the reassignment of infrastructure costs.’

According to jobs website Timewise, an estimated 14.1 million people want more flexibility at work. A study by Randstad found that 62% of UK employees desire the option to work from home, and just 35% want to work from the office full time.

This, coupled with the arrival of Generation Z, highlights the need for companies to evolve and embrace a more openly flexible attitude to the workplace.

By integrating mobility, video and cloud solutions, and embracing models such as bring your own device (BYOD), organisations can better manage and encourage workforce interaction, leading to that increase in productivity and efficiency.

But to achieve this, C-suite executives must lead by example, successfully communicate the importance of flexible working, and outline the guidelines to ensure that the benefits are fully realised throughout the organisation.

In turn, this incorporation of flexible working practices ensures that employees feel liberated, heard and trusted to determine their own working style.

‘The creative solutions powered by technology, combined with the foundation of an agile and collaborative working environment, ensures these digital transformations boost innovation, support creativity and ultimately drive business goals,’ says Donald McLaughlin, director of collaboration at Cisco UKI.

So what is the vision of a workforce with remote working at its core? Business leaders could screen-share from their home office to review financial performance with accountants, instant-message a colleague to review a document, and use video with suppliers to examine the quality of their products.

While this may sound like a prediction of the office of tomorrow, this is how the leading innovators within small businesses are working and communicating today.

On-demand collaboration

Email and phone still remain the top forms of communication within organisations, but forward-thinking business owners are exploring new ways of collaborating.

Through ‘on-demand’ collaboration, businesses can foster the rapport of virtual workers and teams with rich, high-definition video, and improve the bottom line with savings made both on travel costs and office rent through hot desking.

‘Video-conferencing in particular has undergone a revolution,’ says Anne Marie Ginn, senior category manager at Logitech’s EMEA collaboration group. ‘Affordable cloud-based software and enterprise-grade hardware solutions are now a realistic option for any business, replacing older and more expensive meeting-room systems previously reserved only for the largest companies with extensive budgets.’

According to Rob Keenan, head of portfolio management at Unify UK&I, surprisingly few technologies are required to enable flexible working because much of it is cloud-based software, which is easy to deploy
and scale.

The most important aspects of this software are twofold: communication and collaboration. The former should embrace as many different types of contact points as possible, all in one location.

For example, employees should easily be able to keep on top of voice calls, video-conferences and instant messages in a single location. When working away from the traditional office, being able to collaborate on a document is imperative.

It might sound simple, but this type of task, which is common in almost all office-based roles, can quickly become complex when individuals are not next to one another.

‘This is why real-time editing is so important,’ says Keenan. ‘Rather than risking having several documents floating around, with possibly contradictory edits, making changes that can be seen instantaneously makes the process effortless.’

However, companies mustn’t neglect to consider the impact on their back-end IT infrastructure, which must be built to withstand such a flexible approach to working.

The main thing that needs to be focused on is network stability and bandwidth. When flexible working starts, more traffic will be going through the company’s networks. This ranges from video calls and web-conferencing all the way through to people accessing documents from servers.

When this occurs from outside the office, rather than in an internal network, technicians need to ensure that their back-end is able to cope with increased demand.

Flexible working is such a pliable term that precise costs vary from organisation to organisation. But, according to Keenan, it is reasonably cheap compared with many other transformation projects.

‘This is not only on account of the technology not costing huge amounts, but also the fact that it can help reduce other expenditures,’ he says. ‘For example, you may be able to downgrade to a smaller office or spend less on office essentials over time.

‘There is also the cost benefit of a cloud solution, which is normally paid on a monthly basis, rather than a huge upfront cost.’

Culture change

Organisations must, however, consider that while enabling flexible working can offer huge benefits, decentralising the corporate work culture does require them to break through some significant cultural barriers.

Most importantly, businesses need to ensure that employees understand that flexible working doesn’t equate to working longer. It is instead about using time more effectively to ensure increased productivity.

To encourage employees to work flexibly, businesses must foster a culture in which mobile working doesn’t prevent their employees from working as a team.

Everyone needs advice and support from colleagues every now and then, so flexible working should not require employees to exclude themselves from the wider organisation and lose out on opportunities for collaboration.

Ensuring that flexible working results in a positive – not negative – culture change in the workplace should be something that is driven from the top.

>See also: Will remote working kill the office?

‘Creating a more balanced and productive workforce requires strong leadership to change expectations and take the focus away from physical presence in an office,’ says Jason Tooley, regional director, UK & Ireland at Citrix. ‘Instead, leaders should foster a business culture that places the emphasis on delivery, productivity and trust rather than visible time in the office.’

Companies should also consider the security challenges when enabling flexible working. The advancements in technology that enable flexible working pose their own security risks, with businesses finding it increasingly challenging to manage endpoint security in particular.

Every device added to a network creates another potential access point for an attacker. Mobile devices are open to application malware, insecure Wi-Fi use and easier data and device loss, as well as personal apps being downloaded from third-party websites.

All of these allow attackers to access personal and corporate data through excessive app permissions, man-in-the-middle attacks or malware.

Education is key to securing this mobile and flexible workforce. The risks and potential consequences need to be understood by employees, but organisations also need to understand and respect that in many cases their employees are using personal devices.

‘Other important considerations are a well-thought-out VPN policy, full-device encryption, patch management, backups and password management,’ says Matt Aldridge, solutions architect at Webroot. ‘Without a comprehensive plan taking all of these factors into consideration, a business is exposing itself to risks that should have been mitigated through policy, training and technical controls.’

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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