Flexible working: How to create a plan that works for everyone

Everyone wants more flexible working options. Coming up with a plan that works for staff and managers can be good for business and make workers happier and more effective.

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Almost two-thirds of full-time employees in the UK already work flexibly in some way and the rest would like to, too. So how can CIOs help create a flexible working strategy that works for employees and the business? Four experts offer their best-practice tips.

1. Put policies in place to support your strategy

David Walliker, CIO at Liverpool Women's NHS Foundation Trust and the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospital NHS Trust, says support for flexible working is one of his organisations' "big things". He says CIOs must ensure the policies and technologies are in place to support new working methods.

"From an IT perspective, as long we keep on top of the security piece, which is audited regularly, why does it matter where people are working?" says Walliker. "We can connect up to and fix your laptop wherever you are, whether you're at home or on the road. I fully support flexible working. I think the whole concept of flexible working is here now — but we need to look into it in even more detail."

Walliker says staff at both hospitals can work as effectively at home as they can in the office. It only really becomes a challenge when a role requires specialist knowledge in key areas, such as radiologists analysing scans in detail. And progress towards flexible working is even being made in this area.

"We have set the on-call radiologists at the Royal up with devices at home, so they can get calls, view the scans, give their advice, and go back to bed," says Walliker. "Two years ago, that process relied on the staff coming into work in order to view the high-quality images of test results. The idea that you have to come into work — when it's not hands-on clinical care — is something that isn't the case anymore."

2. Make sure your managers give great direction

Sarah Flannigan has a word of warning for CIOs looking to give employees the opportunity to work remotely: "Your flexible working strategy is as only as good as your trusted lieutenants," she says, suggesting she sees varying degrees of success through her advisory and non-executive work for a range of organisations.

"Depending on the quality of the leader of the individual team, some teams are really beginning to fly – in these cases, flexible working is really creating value and the people feel happy and empowered, and they're much more likely to stay with the firm."

But that's not the case for everyone. "Other teams have simply gone off grid – and that's got nothing to do with where they're working and everything to do with the quality of leadership and the direction that's being given," she warns. 

SEE: 10 signs that you aren't cut out to be a telecommuter (free PDF)

Flannigan, who was CIO at EDF Energy until late last year, says digital leaders can play a crucial role in helping to change the demand for presenteeism that persists in many organisations. Her experiences also lead her to suggest that flexible working is a way of promoting new ways of working, rather than simply being a blunt tool for cutting costs.

"You have to break the perception that if you're not there, you're not really working. There is still huge distrust of people working from home. Do not misdiagnose home working as not working — if it doesn't work, it will be about the quality of leadership," she says.

"One of the organisations I'm working with is using home working as a way to resolve office-space problems. That can be a big error – you should use your flexible working strategy as way to attract and retain talent, not as a way of solving a cost problem."

3. Use technology to boost flexibility

Richard Gifford, CIO at logistics firm Wincanton, says huge demand for staff means flexible working plays a key role in modern business. Wincanton often has vacancies for lorry drivers. Gifford believes technology — in Wincanton's case, using Winsight, the firm's paperless cab app for lorry drivers — can be adapted and used to help the firm fill these gaps flexibly.

"If a driver can only work certain dates and hours, we can get them to log these details on their app and they can be sent work that fits their personal profile," he says. "That's where we want to get to — we want to give people flexibility."

Gifford is keen to develop similar paperless solutions for the firm's warehouse workers. When it comes to his own IT department and other line-of-business areas, Wincanton doesn't have a policy that actively promotes working from home. However, he says mobile tech and productivity apps support flexible working.

"If you have a mobile-first strategy and productivity tools, like we have with Microsoft Office 365, then you can give management the opportunity to work from anywhere," says Gifford.

4. Support your people by setting targets and watching outputs

Interim CIO Brad Dowden describes himself as a "big fan" of flexible working. He says the right strategy can be a differentiator when it comes to attracting skilled workers in a high-demand labour market. The key to a successful strategy is a focus on outputs.

"Flexible working can help a company to make the optimal use of its cost base, especially as most businesses are in sectors where their margins are being constantly squeezed. It's nice that your company has a fancy London base, but do you really need it?" asks Dowden, who was CIO at recruitment specialist Airswift until late last year.

SEE: The 10 worst things about working from home (free PDF)

The answer for most organisations, he says, will be no. But a flexible strategy must be enacted with care. It's no good reducing the size of your central headquarters if workers then struggle to connect and collaborate. This is where CIOs can help to implement technical solutions to the business challenge of supporting flexible working.

"Think creatively. If you create a cloud-enabled and truly virtual environment, you remove the need in most instances to have a physical office space. Build confidence in your systems — know where your data resides and give traditional management a sense of how different people in your business produce different outputs," says Dowden.

"Of course, certain roles will still require a lot of interaction between colleagues to create an output. Technologies like Microsoft Teams and Slack can help. But we're getting there — and the creation of key performance indicators relating to the roles that people fulfil will give management the comfort of knowing how people are contributing, regardless of location."

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