SMEs get flexible with convergence

With both the graduate recruitment and holiday season in full swing, SME directors who have chosen to invest in flexible working technologies will be at the front of the queue to snap up top quality employees, while affording themselves some well-deserved time off.

With both the graduate recruitment and holiday season in full swing, SME directors who have chosen to invest in flexible working technologies will be at the front of the queue to snap up top quality employees, while affording themselves some well-deserved time off.

This is all according to the findings of a survey BT commissioned in April. YouGov surveyed 1,000 employers of between two and 100 employees to measure employee attitudes to flexible working. The aim of the survey was to establish the value of flexible working to SMEs, for both employers and employees, in terms of financial benefits, business benefits and work/life benefits.

More than a third of SMEs have migrated to a converged voice and data network, and improved productivity (52%) and increased organisational flexibility (39%) are cited amongst the top three benefits. However, attracting top employees and making some attractive potential salary savings may also be on the horizon.

More than three-quarters of young people say it is important for potential employers to offer flexible working options. The YouGov research found that while flexible working is a valued employee benefit across the age spectrum, almost two-thirds of 18 to 29-year-olds surveyed cited a better work/life balance as the main benefit of working flexibly, followed by less stress and fewer travel problems. The survey also found that 43% of 18 to 29-year-olds are willing to consider lower pay to work at home, compared to 31% of the over 50s.

Beatriz Butsana-Sita, director, marketing propositions at BT Business, believes that for these younger recruits “flexible working technologies and practices are beginning to be seen as a minimum requirement.

“They know they can have access to all this technology, and they already know the technology well. They want to be able to enjoy their leisure time but they are also prepared to work hard, and have already had extensive technical experience gained at university.

“Employers have to embrace this change and adopt the technology, or feel the pain at some point.”

As well as attracting employees, Butsana-Sita believes flexible working is key in retaining employees. At BT, where more than 75,000 employees are now flexible workers, with 11,000 of these contractually based at home, there is an employee churn rate of below 4% and the rate of return after maternity leave is 99%.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those working in London are most keen to instil a better work/life balance, with 37% of respondents who work in the capital prepared to forgo a pay rise in order to be able to work flexible hours. Those in the North West and Yorkshire and Humberside are least keen on the idea, with just 23% of workers in each area prepared to consider it.

SME directors also recognise that flexible working policies can positively impact their organisation, with 65% citing staff motivation and 50% increased productivity as key reasons to adopt them. The research also showed that 59% of SME directors believe they are as able as large organisations to embrace a flexible working culture.

The YouGov research also shows that the board directors of SMEs feel far more comfortable and relaxed about taking a holiday if they know that they can connect to the office. A third of the directors of companies with between 10 and 49 employees say that being able to keep in touch with their business either by e-mail or the phone not only gives them peace of mind, but actually also makes them feel more relaxed while on holiday.

Directors in Wales (55%), the South (38%) and the North East (56%) said that staying connected gives them peace of mind and therefore greater confidence to take a break. Almost a third of company directors in the South and 29% of directors in Scotland feel more able to take a holiday as a direct result of staying connected while away.

A third of directors of UK companies with up to nine employees feel more able to take a holiday because they can contact their office while they are away. More than 25% of directors of larger UK SMEs (classed as being those with between 10 and 100 staff) agree that staying connected to the office gives them the greater flexibility to take holiday.

Butsana-Sita says, “As government, industry and higher education provide more support and opportunities for entrepreneurs to start their own business, it’s important that those choosing this route can take a break if they need to. Owner-managers are critical to a firm’s success, but all too often they feel unable to get away because their businesses are so reliant on them.”

She adds that smaller companies, with up to 10 employees, can start to see a return on flexible working investment in just a few months. “What’s important is for a company looking to adopt flexible working and new technologies, to know in advance exactly what they want to do,” she advises.

“For example, if you want a fully converged switch with private services, that will be expensive. However, just because a company isn’t large doesn’t mean they can’t work efficiently, and make use of solutions that have been sized down accordingly.”

Flexible working is not a route to take lightly, however, and Butsana-Sita advises that it’s worth sitting down with employees as well as technical consultants.

“Think what you want to give employees access to and shop around,” she advises. “Understand too exactly what you want to get out of it, and then look to put a solution together.”

In a context where workers are all regular users of GSM phones, Blackberries, SMS, PDAs, broadband is a minimum requirement.

“All of these are as standard for a sole trader as for a larger company, and they are so easy to adopt. However, it’s not just about the availability of the technology, it’s about the pricing too, the whole wraparound proposal,” says Butsana-Sita.

With the price of the technology dropping all the time, broadband and secure access are becoming commoditised, she believes. “New companies are offering free broadband and the mobile market is highly competitive; there is going to be more and more choice in the market.”

Companies need to anticipate that flexible working means changes in management structure and hierarchy. Line managers, therefore, need to consider how to organise and manage staff meetings and reports back from employees. There are also health and safety considerations to take into account – the company is still responsible for its employees.

“The perception that working from home means doing nothing really has to be addressed,” says Butsana-Sita. “Often the productivity of home workers is higher than those in an office.” And productivity is the bottom line, she believes.

“SMEs want to be able to check their emails constantly, so they don’t always have to return to the office. Employees have to be able to achieve more and look as professional as the bigger companies.”

But what about the many employees who are happy to travel to, and work in, offices? Could they come under undue pressure to accept wage cuts and enforced flexible working? “When it comes to wages, the employer will always seek to get the best possible employee without paying too much: it’s supply and demand,” says Butsana-Sita.

“I don’t think there should be a wage disparity for those who want to work from an office, but some people [as backed up by the YouGov research] might be willing to take a lower wage in order to have access to flexible working. Employers need to discuss this with each worker.”

She also points to the current world political climate – after attacks on New York, Madrid and London, some companies simply don’t want their employees to be travelling to work, and flexible working also offers a good fallback plan to keep a company functioning in an emergency.

Getting the maximum possible services from their devices is crucial to SMEs, and for Butsana-Sita it’s also key to understanding the nature of convergence. “It’s a term that means different things to different people,” she admits. “To me, it’s about technology allowing customers to adopt flexible working with access to voice and data. They can have internet and email over broadband, but also data and voice too, which is a more recent phenomenon. Even a sole trader can afford broadband with a reasonable monthly cost, which can offer that,” she says.

“Larger companies will want switches for voice and data which can also enable Lans. But convergence is about being able to provide all sorts of services from one device; the solution will be different according to the size of the company.”

What will be the next big development in converged technologies? Butsana-Sita likes to refer to a recent conversation with a technologist who said that “the dial tone was the single biggest invention of the 20th century,” she says. “Now we want to know: what’s going to be ‘the next dial tone?’ It’s hard to know what more is to come, but we know we’ve only just scratched the surface.

“There can be surprises - who thought SMS would be as popular as it is? But I think we will start to move towards a way of working that is almost virtual, where you can see, speak with and write to someone via a screen or projection. It would all be hosted by service providers so it would be wireless and wire-free.” What’s for sure, she believes, is that “in two years, this conversation will be totally different.”

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