The news that the British government would press on with its plans to extend flexible working rights to an estimated 4.5 million people can be viewed as a victory for work-life balance and a sign as to how fundamentally technology has transformed the way we do business, writes Stephen Beynon, managing director of ntl:Telewest Business.
When this legislation was officially announced in the Queen's speech, certain commentators were quick to suggest that granting more parents the right to work flexibly would lead to a dip in the country's productivity. What was most remarkable, however, was how out of step these opinions seemed when compared with the realities of modern working life. The fact is that it is no longer possible or fair to consider the length of time that a worker spends in the office as the key measure of productivity when our service sector-dependent economy means that most Britons go to work with a headset rather than a toolkit.
With technology now permeating almost every aspect of business life, workers are naturally using it as an opportunity to work more efficiently. The proliferation of smartphones and affordable laptops in particular, has brought an end to the concept of 'dead time', and spared many workers from the having to head back to the office to catch up with correspondence after a long day on the road.
Similarly the concept of the virtual office has also been transformed in a few short years, benefiting from the fact that high speed broadband connections have now become as essential to most homes as hot and cold running water. This has significantly reduced the cost to business of setting up homeworking programmes, and with Virtual Private Networks in place, it is comparatively simple and safe to grant workers remote access to company networks.
Technology is also helping to deal directly with suggestions that homeworking programmes are open to employee abuse. The widespread adoption of messaging tools and presence indicators makes it easy to understand remote workers' activity and productivity, while helping them to stay motivated through regular contact with colleagues. The ability to be flexible as to when and where employees work can also play a critical part in building successful global teams and doing business across international boundaries - both areas where the UK has excelled in recent years.
Another reason for accepting that technology and mindset are now converging to create a workplace that is radically different from that of a generation ago lies in the makeup of the workforce itself. As the Web 2.0 generation graduates from the classroom to the office, the expectation is that Telecom 2.0 will be ready and waiting for them. For this generation of workers, VoIP, videoconferencing and workplace instant messaging are not novelties but necessities.
In today's testing business climate it has never been more important to show that UK business is willing to be modern, flexible and able to operate internationally. Technology has given us the tools to accomplish all this while potentially improving the work-life balance for millions of people. It really could give us the best of both worlds.
This was first published in December 2008