In a recent survey of 4,000 job hunters’ favourite incentives, flexible working and a better work/life balance won hands down over a company car or even an extra £1,000 a year, according to research carried out by reed.co.uk and the Department of Trade and Industry.
The idea of being able to work more flexibly was a benefit chosen by 46% of respondents. Not surprisingly, it was particularly popular among parents with young children.
The finding comes at an opportune time for the government. It is committed to helping working parents and, from 6 April, parents of children under six or of disabled children under 18 will have the right to apply to work flexibly.
In addition, the government will be increasing and extending maternity leave and pay, and introducing new rights to two weeks’ paid paternity leave.
The new family-friendly policy will mean that some four million parents with a child under six – and 200,000 mothers and fathers with disabled children up to the age of 18 – will be able to request more flexible working.
But the big question is whether flexible working practices work in your all-consuming, highly-charged world. And whether IT sales and marketing managers actually want this sort of flexibility.
Homing in on the new flexibility
The last time vnunet.com’s sister title Infomatics looked at the issue of flexible working, two years ago, many people did not see the idea ever becoming adopted in the sales or marketing fields.
‘Absolutely not,’ was one response. ‘Sales is very much new business-oriented. It’s quite a stressful, volatile environment. I’ve never seen a position which is part-time.’
Another said: ‘I’m not saying it’s a no-no, but there are other IT roles that are much easier to work on a flexible basis.
‘In sales, the expectation is that you are there and available all the time. Most of your client base is going to be working core hours, so you’ll be expected to do so too.’
But while some aspects of flexible working – such as job-sharing or part-time working – remain trickier to incorporate within the sales function, teleworking or home working has taken off.
Appropriately enough, it is the improvements in remote access and mobile technology which are making this transition possible and helping to engineer a more enlightened management view of staff working away from the office when they are in the company of clients or prospects.
Ben Johnson, managing director of Satsuma Solutions, is convinced that flexibility is the new way to work.
‘Employees equipped with the right gear, and trusted to use it properly, are more productive, more creative, more enthusiastic and – if that’s not enough – more loyal than any other type of employee,’ he stated.
Whistle while you work
Johnson believes that embracing mobile technology, and switching to a goals-based company culture at the same time, are the ways to ensure that productivity rises and people are happier in their jobs.
‘Want to take the kids to school? Then work from 10am and have your laptop pick up your email via your mobile phone,’ he explained.
‘Want to ensure a steady supply of coffee and an inspirational urban landscape? Then take your work over to the cafe across the street and log into the network via GPRS.’
It’s a view echoed by Peter Linas, European development director at IT services provider Parity. He believes that companies should be aiming for a good balance of office and home working.
‘The average employee takes around eight days a year off sick, mainly brought on by overworking and stress,’ he said.
‘This kind of problem can be remedied, however, by implementing a flexible working strategy among the workforce with a balance of office and home working.
‘The end result will be that both employer and employee benefit from a more productive working day, making working life more flexible and an enjoyable experience for all.’
Commuting costs cut
Even small businesses, always on the look out to cut costs, can gain from adopting more flexible working practices.
The government’s Business Link network argues that flexibility works not only because it allows families to spend more time together but because working from home cuts out hours of travelling, together with the associated stress and costs.
In addition, with house prices continuing to escalate, the policy allows people to live that bit further away from work and perhaps afford a larger home.
However, it is worth remembering that the new working rights do not provide an automatic right to work flexibly, merely to request to do so.
The idea is that the new rules will facilitate discussion and encourage both employees and their employers to consider mutually suitable working patterns and solutions (see Are you eligible? below).
A woman’s work is never done
For hard-pressed mums in particular, a more flexible attitude to working can make a huge difference.
Debra Wilkins, a strategic alliance manager for a software vendor, and mother of two small children, points out that it is not just the families that gain.
‘If a company is prepared to be flexible, it will receive the same level of flexibility back,’ she suggested.
‘I have on numerous occasions worked very late into the evening, gone abroad for my company and generally put in the extra mile.
‘Why? Because when I have needed to leave early, arrive late or go home for a sick child, my employers have been understanding, compassionate and provided me with the means to work from home.’
Juggling the demands of a job with those of family is something very familiar to Gill Hunt, who has worked on the vendor side of the IT industry for 15 years.
‘I think flexible working can be very good value for employers but requires a bit of imagination and trust on their part and real commitment from the employee,’ she explained.
‘For me, when it worked, it was brilliant and I could really enjoy home life and work. When it didn’t, I felt constantly pulled between the two environments.
‘One particular incident sticks in my mind when I had to break off a phone call to deal with an emergency: a four year-old running up the garden brandishing an axe!’
New technology, new culture
Managed properly, flexible working is clearly a potential solution to the growing problem of stress and the work/life balance.
But as Philip Ward, of BT Wholesale, a provider of flexible working solutions, pointed out: ‘Despite these benefits, unless properly managed, changing over to flexible working can be a difficult process.
‘There needs to be an holistic approach, looking at the cultural changes that can affect employees. ‘In particular, without the correct use of technology, companies’ communications costs can increase through factors like mobile messaging and roaming.’
In the sales arena, the timely flow of information is critical. ‘The most powerful tool for any salesperson is knowledge,’ said Nigel Dunn, UK manager for Genesys Conferencing.
‘Adopting a virtual team approach to customers enables the team dynamic to exist constantly for every customer every day.
‘When calling customers, look to conference in virtual team members to deal with issues as they arise, and ensure that everyone gets all the information as fast and as regularly as possible. In other words, encourage idea flow.’
FLEXIBILITY IN PRACTICE
Alan Hamilton, director of sales & marketing, Astute Software:
‘We have a virtual marketing team that is project-oriented and we do most of our communication and co-ordination remotely.
‘This project focus enables responsible team members to meet deadlines while juggling home commitments.
‘Most tasks can be accomplished in flexible hours and we focus on core hours in the day and week for the specific tasks requiring the team to meet at HQ.
‘Additionally, regular off-site meetings ensure that the group develops and keeps up the team spirit and co-operation required to be highly effective and motivated.’
Tracey Farrant, marketing manager, IBM Computer Users’ Association:
‘As a marketing manager for a small IT company, I work flexible hours. In order to beat the traffic I start at 8am and leave at 4pm.
‘My commute is 60 miles and flexible working combined with home working makes this job viable. If I had to work 9-5pm, I would be stuck in traffic jams for hours that would leave me a nervous wreck.
‘As I have very little traffic to face I often start earlier and that period in the morning before the phones start going is a very productive time of day for me.’
British Psychological Society:
’70 per cent of flexible workers surveyed have a higher level of output compared to traditional full-timers.’
ARE YOU ELIGIBLE FOR FLEXIBLE WORKING?
In order to request a change to your working hours, working times or to work from home, you need to:
- Be an employee.
- Have a child under six, or under 18 in the case of a disabled child.
- Have worked with your employer continuously for 26 weeks.
- Have or expect to have responsibility for the child’s upbringing.
- Be making the application to enable you to care for your child.
- Not be an agency worker or in the Armed Forces.
- Not have made another application to work flexibly under the right during the past 12 months.
- More information can be obtained on a special Acas helpline 08457 474747.
IMPLEMENTING A FLEXIBLE WORKING POLICY
- Be clear about targets, quotas and objectives.
- Establish reliable lines of communication between office and home bases.
- Organise regular reviews of the arrangement.
- Recognise that flexible ways of working may lead to changes in the
- organisation’s culture.
- Understand that trust is central to flexible working.
- Organise communal face-to-face events to keep people connected.
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