“A lot of businesses are probably not ready for this,” said Colina Greenway, director in People Services at KLegal, the law firm associated with KPMG.
Greenway said the new flexible working rights will affect around 3.7 million people, roughly 15% of the working population, and adapting to the regulations will be hardest for small and medium-sized organisations with small HR departments and companies running shifts.
However, for companies that get it right, ”It could be very motivational and increase productivity", she said.
Mike Young, HR director for networks firm Avaya in the UK, Ireland and the Nordics, said managers need shift from a “1980s” perception that employees are not busy working if they cannot see them.
Avaya has launched a flexible working HR policy for all its 900 UK employees and has developed a ‘flexible worker identikit’ to help companies assess employee suitability for flexible working.
“The main issues for IT directors are support and telecommunication costs - you’ve got to look at low-cost options like virtual private networks,” said Young.
Microsoft also urged companies to be more flexible in their approach to meeting the new legal requirements.
Mike Pryke-Smith, medium business marketing manager at Microsoft UK, believes many companies are still “intimidated” by the idea of employees working from home because they mistakenly think productivity will suffer.
"The reality is advances in technology are making a workers' location increasingly less relevant,” said Smith. “Workers are as flexible as the tools you provide them with. There’s also a tangible return on investment in offering flexible working.”
Such arguments are borne out by the experience of insurance firm Legal and General, which has had a flexible working programme for the last four years.
“We didn’t have to do it but we did because we felt it would benefit everybody - and it has,” said Margaret Smith, director of business technology and delivery at Legal and General. “The regulations won’t really affect us.”
The new regulations, which make employers legally responsible to consider applications to work flexibly from parents with children under the age of six or disabled children under 18, could provide a much-needed fillip for the IT industry.
Tim Johnson, principal analyst at Ovum, said the need to keep remote workers connected with office could provide “a big boost” to broadband take-up and even video telephony further down the line. “If it’s managed well it could lead to business improvements,” he added.
A study of more than 1,000 employers and 2,000 employees for the Department of Trade and Industry showed that nine out of 10 bosses say flexible working is low cost and good for business. A third (35%) of managers and professionals would like to work from home on a regular basis, the survey found.
The DTI Work-Life Balance 2003 survey also found many employers had already introduced work-life balance arrangements.
DTI Work-Life Balance 2003 survey - key findings:
94% of employers think people work best when they can strike a healthy work/life balance
91% said there were no or minimal costs involved in implementing their work/life balance practices
82% of employers said they have some work/life balance practices in place.
75% said they had a more motivated and committed work force as a result of these practices
60% reported reduced turnover of employees.