Technology enabling workers to carry out their jobs regardless of location is set to feature on many CIOs' shopping lists. Flexible working offers business benefits and allows employees to improve their work/life balance. But will managers accept it? Karl Flinders reports.
Key to flexible working are technologies such as mobile computing devices, cloud-based applications, video conferencing and even social media. But an ad hoc approach taken toward flexible working by many firms could mean policies are unclear and budgets cannot be set aside for the technology required to make flexible working work.
Recent surveys have revealed large enterprises and their employees favour flexible working. At the same time, new technologies which make it easy for employees to access all the resources they need securely from outside the office, are becoming available and established technologies are maturing into enterprise-ready tools.
The technologies that drive successful flexible working:
The adoption of mobile computing devices such as smartphones and tablets is outstripping established computers such as laptops and desktops. Businesses have already introduced policies to enable staff to use their own personal devices while at work. Bring your own device (BYOD) schemes legitimise activity that was once unauthorised and out of the IT department’s control. Software publishers have recognised this and are designing their latest versions to be as at home on tablets as they are on desktops and laptops. Microsoft’s next computer operating system (OS), Windows 8, is a case in point. The public test version of Windows 8 OS was announced at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2012 on the last day of February. It uses the so-called Metro touch-based user interface and has built-in support for low-powered hardware. These display Microsoft’s aim to support growing tablet use.
With businesses increasingly moving to cloud-based applications the whereabouts of the user is less relevant. Services delivered over the internet securely can be accessed using mobile devices. This means workers need not down tools while travelling or at home. Enterprise business software maker SAP recently made its SME cloud-based software, Business ByDesign, available with iPad and iPhone support.
Virtualising desktops provides staff with the same desktop regardless of where they are or what computer they are using. Thames Water is piloting desktop virtualisation with 500 users following a smaller initial pilot. The virtual desktops are a reaction to users wanting to have the same experience whether in the office or working remotely.
Cost-cutting strategies have already seen video conferencing being taken up by businesses. The technology is enabling massive financial savings and also helps organisations reduce their carbon footprints by reducing travel. The technology, which enables face-to-face communications, has matured in recent years as a result. Workers can set up ad hoc meetings in seconds through commercially available video conferencing services or even on the internet via platforms such as Skype. For example, Fujitsu Group Properties – which provides central management services to firm Fujitsu – uses BT MeetMe Global Access conferencing to enable real-time collaboration between up to 40 people.
Workforces are increasingly using social media to communicate internally and with customers. Cloud-based platforms such as Twitter and Skype enable messages to be sent instantly. Communication platforms will be uninterrupted, even if the business systems go down.
According to the International Engineering Consortium, unified communications is an industry term used to describe all forms of call and multimedia/cross-media message-management functions controlled by an individual user for both business and social purposes.
your own device (BYOD) schemes
These allow workers to use their own computer for work will increase flexibility as mobile devices become the tools of choice. This reduces hardware costs; increases flexibility because workers are always connected; and improves user satisfaction.
In its New World of Work for Business Decision Makers survey of business leaders across Europe, Microsoft found 90% of UK businesses now allow flexible working.
This is one of the reasons why the UK is set to see a surge in flexible working. According to a survey of over 1,000 CIOs in 11 countries, carried out by Vanson Bourne for Citrix, by 2013 there will be a 249% increase in the number of personal devices used to support flexible working. The research revealed businesses understand the benefits, with 83% believing that flexible working increases productivity.
There is also an opportunity for organisations to cut costs. Wakefield Council expects to save £1m in property costs and a further £100,000 per year in telephony expenditure through deploying technology to promote flexible working.
Meanwhile, a better work-life balance is demanded by today’s workforce and flexible working is even seen as a key benefit when job-seeking. Many people want flexible working options so much they will look for employers that offer it. According to research from mobility service provider iPass, 33% of workers would consider looking for employment elsewhere for better mobile working benefits.
The technology that supports seamless flexible working is also attractive to people looking for work. In its "Future of Work" initiative, IT services firm Cognizant says businesses will change how people communicate in work and with customers. It believes organisations will have to cater for this or risk losing staff to the companies that can offer them the technology they want at work.
But despite the almost universal acceptance that flexible working should be the norm and a good understanding of its advantages, there is significant progress to be made if businesses are to reach their flexible working goals.
Microsoft’s European flexible working survey revealed that, despite the technology required for flexible working being mature, only 34% of UK businesses provide basic technologies such as laptops and remote connection to the company network to enable more flexible work styles. Only 44% of business decision-makers have invested in collaborative technology, such as instant messaging or videoconferencing software.
Microsoft’s report says: “Businesses must allow their IT departments to deploy the services which make flexible working a reality rather than a hyped-up concept.”
Organisations take ad hoc approach to flexible working
Many businesses have ad hoc approach to flexible working which may explain the lack of investment in technology that enables flexible working.
Fotis Karonis, CTO at mobile service provider Everything Everywhere, says the company does not have a flexible working policy set in stone, but is open to it. He says the company uses virtual private network (VPN) technology to enable workers to link to corporate networks securely.
Karonis says when Everything Everywhere completes the integration of the Orange and T-Mobile IT infrastructures, it will be better set-up to allow flexible working: “A lot of our systems will be cloud-based and we will look at things like tablets and virtual desktops.”
Phil Pike, head of IT at West & Wales Utilities, says the company does allow staff to work from home on a case-by-case basis. “We will look to enhance mobile technology to give us the option but no formal policy is planned.”
Firms fail to communicate flexible working options
But it is not just the technology investment shortfall that needs addressing. Businesses are failing to properly communicate their flexible working policies and what is actually available to staff. According to Microsoft’s survey while 60% of business leaders say flexible working polices and guidelines are available, 70% of workers are unaware of their existence.
Sean Harley Sean Harley, director of technology operations at SkyIQ, says there is a shortfall in how businesses formalise flexible working. He says the technology is there but policies need to be clear and governance needs to be formalised. “All the technology is already there, with laptops and softphones. You can fire up a virtual desktop on a home computer these days.”
“You have to make sure you have the right levels of governance.”
The role of flexible working in business
Harley says the company has an informal flexible working policy but is unlikely to expand beyond this.
He says team knowledge is shared better when workers are in the office. He believes flexible working technologies are vital when people have to work remotely but, “there is nothing better than face-to-face communications”.
Richard Edwards, analyst at Ovum, says although it has been almost a decade since the government first announced the rights for people to request flexible working, “making it a reality is different”.
He says the business benefits of flexible working are difficult to prove and as a result it is difficult to assign money to the technology that supports it.
“Any investment these days has to have a real business case,” Edwards says. “The technology to support flexible working can be really expensive.”
He says for businesses where there is a real saving, such as reducing office space, the investments can be justified. But if it is just increased flexibility that is the aim then businesses will probably just make do with the technology they already have.
Despite survey after survey revealing that flexible working is almost universally accepted, this does not mean that it will suddenly take off. Most companies allow flexible working as an option required, but do not want it to become the norm. This partly explains why businesses have not invested heavily in technology to support the practice.
This was first published in March 2012