There’s been a lot of talk lately about work-life balance and flexible working practices – particularly as here in the UK we work longer hours than anyone else in Europe. But we are not necessarily very happy about it.
This desire for better quality of life, together with a series of drives for legislative change by the European Union, led the Blair government to introduce new employment laws, dubbed ‘Flexible Working – the Right to Request’ (see box on page 12 for details).
But the big question is how the legislation is likely to affect ICT workers such as you. Is it practicable, given the fact that many of you work in an environment where you are the sole provider of IT support or are part of a small team?
Before tackling these issues, let’s look at a few statistics to put the situation into context. According to the SME Audit, about 72% of the 1,400 SMEs questioned had a dedicated ICT department, with 32% employing either one and two staff and a further 28% employing between three and five people.
Of that 72% mentioned above, 57% said they had a formal ICT strategy in place, with 58% of them indicating it was a dedicated IT manager who had come up with it.
All of which demonstrates, of course, the increasing importance of ICT in your sector, and of yourselves as key members of staff.
As for how the new legislation will affect you, however, John Eary, head of skills source consultancy at the NCC Group, believes many companies like yours have a good record of being flexible and of coming to informal agreements with their ICT staff because many don’t work straight nine-to-five shifts anyway.
This means that, in many instances, the new legislation is simply a formalisation of existing processes, and as such its uptake is generally agreed to have been relatively low so far, although this could be due to other factors such as lack of awareness or a feeling that “none of my colleagues are doing it, so how likely is it that I’ll be allowed to?”
But this situation will change in the long term, says Peter Knowles, a consultant at BT’s Workstyle Group, which is one of 10 consultancies nationwide that is backed by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Work/Life Balance Challenge Fund.
So how can the fund help you to introduce flexible working policies? Through it, you can apply for £50,000 worth of vouchers to pay for services from one of the fund members, or for between £7,500 and £10,000 worth of vouchers for help in introducing new policies, practices and procedures.
This might be useful information to pass on to your boss; in Knowles’ opinion, the new legislation is “the tip of the iceberg”, with future versions likely to include everyone, not just those with children. “How long will it be before someone says, ‘this is discriminatory and just because I don’t have a child, why can’t I do it too?’” he says.
But as NCC Group’s Eary points out, you, as ICT personnel, face unique problems because you’re employed in an SME environment, particularly with regard to home working.
“In a large organisation there’s more specialisation, but in an SME, people have more of an across-the-board role, which makes options more limited. In some cases, especially in smaller organisations, on-site availability is often critical, especially if staff have a support role,” he says.
While the remote management and support of ICT is becoming technically more feasible, the main barrier to this in many cases is one of management style and trust. As BT’s Knowles puts it: “If the management says, ‘you bunch of Herberts can work from home, but I know you won’t do anything’, then it’s not going to work for anyone.”
But there are other issues that your employer might raise, a key one being the up-front cost of introducing flexible working practices, particularly if this includes home working. Such costs can range from the price of a desk or chair to installing a broadband connection or a virtual private network (VPN) for secure remote access, and some bosses may even ask you to carry the cost for the “privilege”.
But all is not lost, and there are advantages that might be worth mentioning to the sympathetic ear. For example, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, flexible working leads to productivity increases of between 20%-40%, because you can work in a more conducive way for yourself to get the job done.
Morale and staff satisfaction is also boosted, which has a knock-on effect in terms of recruitment and retention – and may even enable your employer to keep hold of your specialist skills because they’re giving you what you want.
And, finally, flexible working can lead to a reduction in total cost for the business.
BT’s Knowles explains: “One of the barriers that is often raised to home working is that it’ll require putting more on the IT budget, for example, to pay for a VPN. But many companies don’t take an holistic approach to remote working; for example, looking at the money they can save by taking a desk away or by improving staff retention.”
So what can you do in practical terms to clear the path for flexible working if that’s what you’ve got your heart set on?
For one thing, you could start modestly by simply asking to start later and finish later, which would result in you putting in the same number of total hours and delivering the same output, but could make life just that little bit less fraught.
You could explore what remote management technology is available to support you working from home and agree a trial period of three months with your boss to see how it goes.
You even could look at the possibility of outsourcing the IT function, while keeping yourself on to manage the contract.
And if all else fails, says Simon Wassall, UK operations director at recruitment consultants Harvey Nash, you could think about hiring skilled contract staff from the large current pool to fill in those gaps when you can’t be around. Contractors currently charge an hourly rate of £10-£25 per hour, depending on skills and experience, he says.
But whether you succeed in your bid to work flexibly or not, organisations are going to be driven to flexible working whether they like it or not due to government legislation, customers requiring a faster, more flexible service, and staff demanding more employee power.
As BT’s Knowles concludes: “As a result, IT departments need to work very closely with other colleagues to make sure it works for the whole business.”
Flexible working: the right to request legislation
As of 6 April 2003, if you’re a parent of children under the age of six or of disabled children under 18 and have worked continuously for your employer for at least 26 weeks, you’ve had the right to apply to work flexibly. This does not apply if you’re an agency worker or member of the armed forces.
If you’re eligible, you can apply to change the hours you work or when you're required to work, and can also ask to work from home. The legislation covers such working patterns as annualised hours, flexitime, job-sharing and shift-work.
As a result of the move, employers now have a duty to consider your request seriously. But if they can show that the cost of accommodating flexible working is too burdensome, they can deny the application.
Reasons for turning down a request for flexible working include:
- if flexible working would have a detrimental effect on the company’s ability to meet customer demand.
- if it is impossible to reorganise work among existing staff.
- if it is impossible to recruit additional staff; for example, because of the specialised nature of certain skills.
- if it would have a detrimental effect on quality of service.
- if it is possible to demonstrate that it would have a detrimental impact on the performance of the business.
- if there are planned structural changes that would make flexible working impossible in future.
You can only make an application once a year and it has to be in writing. If it is accepted, it will mean a permanent change to your terms and conditions of employment unless otherwise agreed between both parties.
Within 28 days of receiving your request, your employer has to arrange to a meeting with you to explore the issues and see how it can be accommodated. You also have the right to bring a colleague along with you.
Within 14 days of this meeting your employer has to write to you to either agree your new working patterns and a starting date, or to provide you with clear business grounds as to why your application has been denied. If the latter applies, they have to set out the appeals procedure for you.
You have to appeal within 14 days of being notified of your employer’s decision, and can refer your request to the Acas conciliation committee or to an employment tribunal if you believe you have been discriminated against. In the latter case, your employer has to be able to demonstrate that they have followed procedure correctly, and if they can’t, the tribunal can order them to reconsider. While it can order compensation that is just and equitable, it does not have the power to overturn the decision.
Sources: DTI, Osborne Clarke legal firm
This was first published in December 2003