Home workers help BT cut cost, retain talent

British Telecom says its home-working employee scheme helped improve productivity and hire talent without geographical limitations, while giving staff flexibility of balancing career with personal responsibilities.

Supporting home-working schemes can be as easy as equipping workers with basic communication channels, according to British Telecomm (BT) Group, which says creating such flexible working environment has helped the company lower staff turnover, achieve greater cost savings and retain talent.

However, the telecommunication services provider took care to ensure the proper procedures and guidelines are in place to support a versatile workforce.

Besides setting clear HR policies, for instance, the IT department also has to be "very involved early on" in processes such as setting up security protocols, explained Dennis Gissing, head of people practices at BT Group.

"We have very strict rules on data protection. For examples, all our PCs, whether in the office or at home, have to be password-protected with encryption capabilities and so on," Gissing said in an interview with ZDNet Asia. "That is a rule and if a staff member fails to follow [the rules], disciplinary action will be meted out."

BT started its home-working program in the United Kingdom in 1986, and now has about 10,500 employees working from home. The scheme had started as a way for the telecom vendor to showcase what it preaches in the industry--that is, the capabilities of its remote working services--and to convince clients that a remote workforce can be easily supported.

BT's home-workers do not have an office space in the company's headquarters in London, but are provided with workspace furniture and communication equipment such as printer, telephone and Internet access. They are also given an allowance of US$40 (£26) every quarter to offset electricity and heating bills.

If they are working from home, we want them to be able to work in a safe and secure environment," Gissing said. "We think [covering the cost of furnishing] is a good practice as an employer."

Talent retention, cost savings
One important advantage the scheme provides is the ability to hire and choose the best talent without being limited by geographical distances. Gissing gave the example of two staff currently in his team, one of whom is from Edinburgh, Scotland, and the other is from Lichfield, Staffordshire, about 100 miles away from London.

Had BT not implemented home-working, he would not have been able to hire these talents if they were unwilling to relocate to London.

"It gives me greater scope to recruit the best talent for the job, where the person could be in Singapore or Australia. It really widens the net," he said.

The home-working scheme has also provided cost savings.

Gissing said: "If we have to pull all the home workers back into the building, we would have to acquire more office space, together with electricity and heating. That could constitute a substantial amount of costs for the business."

Employees, on the other hand, also have a lot to gain. For people with physical disabilities or with responsibilities outside work, home-working is a good opportunity for them to maintain a career and at the same time, still care for those in need.

At BT, Gissing noted that all eligible employees--depending on their field of work--are free to apply for the home-working option.

"If you can make people's lives easier, help them balance their responsibilities against their work needs, you are going to have more engaged employees and be able to attract a wider range of talents, simply because they're happier," he said.

Also, as these workers are usually in non-customer service positions such as legal or sales, it is a more convenient option when they need to communicate with clients across different time zones.

Having workers operate from home also creates societal benefits, such as reducing their carbon footprint since they cut down on travelling to and from work.

Gissing said: "In the U.K., many rural communities [over the years] have become rundown because people [leave to] commute to the bigger cities for work. This deprives local businesses of economical benefits," he explained.

He added that by allowing people to work in their small villages, these employees have time to volunteer in schools and local communities.

However, home-working is not without its challenges. Because there are no managers or supervisors to "watch over" the staff, performance measurement becomes an issue, Gissing said. But, he noted that this can be resolved by building a system of trust and better job design or work management.

"Home workers are measured by the deliverable objectives they need to fulfill as well as their responsibilities. If my job is to sell to a customer and achieve customer satisfaction, and produce reports back to my management on the progress, then your performance will be judged on that," he explained.

"Quite frankly, people can sometimes be quite non-productive in offices, really," he said. "And it could all be about pretending to be working when you're just staring at the PC."

Gissing pointed out that if a worker is able to achieve his targets, it does not matter whether he takes time out to watch television or bring his kids to the school "as long as the demands of the job are met". This in turn, generates higher productivity and less absenteeism, he added.

He admitted BT has fired home-workers in the past but declined to provide details on the reasons for such dismissal.

Home working not feasible in Asia
Much as home-working is a scheme that can provide various benefits, BT does not implement the program in its offices in the Asia-Pacific region, Gissing said, citing different work culture and living environment as key reasons.

For example, in Japan where he was based for a couple of years, he noted that apartments are not very spacious and when shared with a few other family members, space becomes a challenge. In such scenario, home-working is not conducive.

"It's less culturally acceptable in parts of Asia," he said. "There's also correlation with lifestyles and ways of living, and it's not seen as a common benefit in all countries."

However, he said BT still does allow for flexible working conditions which, he said, remains "very prevalent in the system".

Gissing was also quick to add that technology is the main driver behind the company's ability to provide a flexible HR structure which was not possible 40 years ago.

He said BT is currently in talks with the U.K. government to help its local councils look into ways of implementing remote working to further cut costs on office accommodation.

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