Flexible working makes stronger businesses

You need to adopt flexible working practices not just because employees increasingly expect them, but because they make your business much more resilient to disruptive events

The barriers to success have always been high, and they are getting higher, writes Bharat Thakrar, head of business continuity at BT Global Services.

Competition, regulation and other predictable challenges make business tough enough, but at least they affect all companies equally. What can really bring an organisation to its knees are the unpredictable and highly selective 'acts of God and man' - floods, pandemics, terrorist attacks - that have the potential to cripple a business while leaving its competitors unscathed.

Both efficiency and customer focus are highly dependent on the uninterrupted availability of computing and communications systems. If your servers are down because of flooding, or key IT and call centre staff can't get to work, your business can simply cease to function.

So what can be done?

The obvious answer is 'be prepared' - think about what can go wrong and how your business might respond. You also need to adopt flexible working practices - not just because employees increasingly expect them, but because they make your business much more resilient to disruptive events, large and small.

The toolkit of flexible working technologies includes three basic components: secure remote access to company systems, so that staff can continue to work access to office phone lines, so that staff continue to receive their calls and conferencing, so that people can continue to meet.

Contrary to popular myth, accessing corporate networks from outside the office doesn't have to mean an increased threat to key systems and data. Provided users are authenticated and encryption is used to prevent eavesdropping, then security is not an issue. Using them, staff can access the IT systems they need to do their jobs not just when they are in a company office, but from a host of other locations - homes, hotels, temporary offices and so on.

Those IT systems and the networks that connect them must themselves be resilient, of course. If the applications and databases employees need exist only on computers in buildings affected by problems that have forced them to find other places to work, the option to connect remotely could be of very limited use.

Much the same applies when it comes to maintaining access to phone services. The significance of IP telephony for flexible working is that it ends the fixed relationship between a line and a phone number. Instead, users can make any phone their own simply by logging in from any location that offers an IP connection to the corporate network - another office within the corporate headquarters, regional offices, wireless hotspots, or even employees' homes.

Finally, although generally marketed as a means of saving on the cost of business travel, audio, web and video conferencing really come into their own when a disaster makes travel very much more difficult. The classic examples are post 9/11, when US civil flights were suspended, and after the 7/7 attacks in London, which left many uncomfortable about using the tube.

The challenges of flexible working may sound daunting. But don't be put off. Across the world, enterprises large and small have demonstrated that flexible working is both good for business as usual and an excellent form of disaster insurance. As a strategy for business management, it's a true win-win option.

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