Since 6 April, the government's new Flexible Working Regulations give certain employees the right to request a change to the number of hours they work, the times when they work and to ask to work from home. While the decision to grant these rights will be a business choice, it will have implications for the work of the IT manager.
It is already quite common for staff to work from home when it suits both them and their management, taking laptops home and keeping in touch by mobile phone. The IT infrastructure to support this is readily available and it is feasible to provide access to e-mail by remote networking.
Many people already have ISDN or ADSL installed at home and so access to their corporate e-mail account and network services can be provided relatively simply.
But if working from home is to be a regular arrangement, a comprehensive telephone service is also needed to keep remote members of staff fully in touch, extending the full phone facilities of the main office to the home location.
Private branch exchange manufacturers are now bringing out products that can enable a remote office to operate seamlessly with the main company base, so customers calling in will not be aware that they are speaking to a satellite location. Calls can even be redirected automatically to a mobile.
For example, an extension in the company directory can be mirrored with exactly the same ability to transfer and redirect calls at the remote office, allowing a member of staff to switch their calls to office or home, depending on where they are working.
More advanced features that provide the ability for employees to work in teams from their homes, queue calls and pass calls from extension to extension are available remotely too, which will be good for applications such as call centre operations.
Employers can legitimately refuse to allow flexible working if there are sound business reasons to do so. The main factors will be unreasonable costs, or if the new arrangement has a detrimental affect on the company's ability to serve its customers. This will raise some interesting issues for IT.
Should the employer pay the full cost of PC, phone and internet links when the employee is saving on petrol and travel costs? Issues such as improvements in productivity and reduced requirements for space in the office should also be considered.
ADSL is one of the two main forms of broadband internet access, but it will never be available nationwide, due to the limitations of the technology. And it is the more rural areas, where it would be most beneficial to be able to work from home, that lack coverage.
For this reason, ISDN has a key role to play. ISDN supports both voice and data and with correct implementation offers an effective and complete solution in terms of price, coverage, facilities and flexibility.
As the boundaries between work and home become less clear, the PBX will need to support the flexible working infrastructure.
We could be moving towards virtual companies where many staff work from their own sites, using the same communications as their colleagues at head office. Like so much of modern business, the success of flexible working will depend largely on the efforts of the IT department.
Richard Jones is technical director of NXGear, UK distributor of the Forte PBX system
The Flexible Working Regulations www.dti.gov.uk/er/flexible