The routine 9-5 isn't the only way to make a living. Helen Gilbert hears how flexible working can benefit organisations and employees
Times are changing. Forget old notions of flexible working being aimed at women with children. Employers are increasingly aware of the benefits that tailor-made working patterns can bring in terms of increased productivity thanks to a happier, less stressed workforce.
The latest Work Life Balance Employer Survey, commissioned by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, found 95 per cent of the 1,400 workplaces surveyed were already offering some form of flexible working.
Part-time working is now offered by 92 per cent of workplaces - up from 81 per cent in 2003. The number of employers offering compressed hours, where employees work their total number of contracted weekly hours over a shorter period, has also risen - 41 per cent now offer it, compared with just 19 per cent in 2003.
The survey also found that increasing numbers of men are keen to work flexibly, making up 43 per cent of employees who requested a change to working patterns in the past two years.
FOCUS ON PERFORMANCE
Centrica, the owner of British Gas, is one company taking the lead on flexible working. In 2005, the company introduced a scheme for all staff called 'Work:wise'. The objective was to offer individuals greater control over their work-life balance, whilst achieving more efficient use of office space to reap commercial property savings.
According to Melanie Flogdell, head of policy at Centrica, individuals and teams decide how flexible they can be while giving the same, if not better, service to their customers.
"Objectives still need to be met, but it's about working where is best for the task in hand, not constraining people to either office or home," she says. "This means a focus on performance measurement rather than simply setting objectives. Employees are measured on 'outputs', not time in the office."
Centrica's flexible working choices fall into three categories: office workers, who spend more than 60 per cent of their time in the office; mobile workers, who spend considerable time at different Centrica sites or third-party premises; and home workers, who spend more than 60 per cent of time working at home.
Traditional start, finish and break times have also been removed to encourage greater 'working hours' flexibility.
"Some teams choose to remain in the office five days a week because that fits their circumstances, but most prefer to share a desk within the organisation while having a laptop, wireless connection and a fast broadband line at home to let them control how, when and where they work," says Flogdell.
Fiona Creese, category manager in marketing services at British Gas, has been working flexibly for two-and-a-half years and describes the firm's approach to alternative working patterns as "very forward thinking". The mother of one, who is expecting her second child shortly, says working from home has transformed both her working and home life.
"In procurement there are peaks and troughs of work at certain times of the year. So if I have a lot on, say in the middle of a pitch with an advertising agency, it's an intensive period of time and I have to work more than the contracted hours. But I can do the extra work at home in the evenings or weekends.
"My last pitch process involved seven advertising agencies submitting 30-page documents with appendices. To sit at home and read and digest those is a much more productive way of working because you don't get the same distractions and interruptions as you would in the office."
Working from home has also helped Creese enormously when unexpected events happen - such as her child becoming sick at nursery. "If I was in a 9-5 job in an office I wouldn't have been able to work," she points out.
Creese adds the beauty of Centrica's policy is that it is open to everyone so there is no friction between colleagues.
According to Flogdell, work-life balance satisfaction has improved by 38 per cent and the scheme has enabled Centrica to achieve cost savings of £10 million per annum by vacating an unsuitable building without having to acquire a new one.
BT is another firm that has embraced flexible working. The communication giant's first homeworker started in 1986 and BT claims flexibility is now the 'blood' of its business.
Currently 75,000 people are equipped to work flexibly in one way or another and the firm has 13,700 homeworkers in the UK out of a total of 104,000 employees. A BT spokesman claims homeworkers are, on average, 20 per cent more productive than office-based workers, and their increased productivity adds another £6m-£7m of value to BT's bottom line.
Allan Deacon, BT's head of procurement for financial services, energy and mobility is one of these home-based workers. He only attends BT sites for specific meetings and says flexible working is ideal for his job.
"Being a homeworker means you can get more global coverage than if you're office-based, where you have the added encumbrance of travelling time. There are occasions when I am talking to suppliers on the West Coast of America - it's something like an 11-hour time difference - and I can be talking at 10pm to a supplier in California quite happily. Equally, I can be talking to a colleague in the Far East at 8am in the morning.
"It also allows me to be flexible so when I have a peak workload I can work extra hours when I want to without the worry about whether the trains are going to be running or what the motorway traffic is like."
Deacon, who has a young family including a son with special needs, says his working method also enables him to be on hand if there's an emergency. In fact, he predicts this approach will grow. "Sales people have worked like this for a while now and a lot of procurement professionals work like this in BT."
Mark Redhead, Canterbury City Council audit and exchequer manager as well as lead officer on procurement, is an example of this growing trend from the public sector. Mark has chosen to work 'compressed hours', which means he works a nine-day fortnight and takes alternate Mondays off.
"By working longer days when no-one is around I do not suffer interruptions," he explains. "Projects can be tackled over fewer long days so it helps meet targets. I swap days if needed to meet peaks and then, for example, take a Friday off in place of the Monday."
Canterbury City Council has been named a finalist in the Professional Planning Forum Awards for its successful work-life balance scheme, which was introduced in 2006. Their policy applies to all staff except those with set hours contracts or agreements and provides them with various options including flexitime, compressed hours and home working.
Sally Jemmett, departmental support manager of the council's corporate services department says benefits include increased employee morale, greater flexibility to meet customer needs during off-peak hours - such as evening inspections - and improved recruitment and retention of staff.
Additionally, employees are less distracted, can make arrangements such as health appointments at short notice, do not have the stress of commuting and can balance their work and home life.
The latter aspect makes a big difference to Mark. "Working compressed hours gives me a long weekend every other week so keeps my sanity from the pressures of juggling a wide range of jobs. I can also get things done, such as DIY, and have breaks with my wife, who is registered disabled."
MEN AT (PART-TIME) WORK
The trend for increasing numbers of men to request flexible working is also evident at KPMG. Last year it received 439 flexible working requests and around 25 per cent came from male employees.
According to Sarah Bond, KPMG's head of diversity Europe, the firm does not ask people why they want to work flexibly. "We are simply interested in how to make it work," she says.
"Our offerings include part-time working, job sharing, additional holiday purchase, unpaid leave, career breaks and home working. We have also recently introduced an 'annualised days' option, based on working complete days or dates in a pattern, which is particularly suited to transactional environments in which there are peaks and troughs in workload."
Bond adds that flexible working arrangements apply to both full and part-time posts and all employees have a right to request it regardless of grade or role. In fact, KPMG - which has had 1,600 applications since it launched its flexible working options in 2004 - believes this approach is central to recruiting and retaining people.
It is a pertinent point and one which Creese agrees with. "If I was going to consider moving to another role in another company, flexi-working is almost more important to me at this stage of my life than a salary increase. It just helps you out in so many respects."
With the current shortage of procurement professionals, firms would be well advised to offer it.
Helen Gilbert is a freelance business journalist
Benefits of flexible workingfor employers and employees
• Increased employee morale and a more satisfied workforce
• Increased productivity owing to fewer distractions
• Reduction of C02 emissions, traffic congestion and parking pressures
• Reduction in operating and administrative costs
• Improved recruitment and retention
• Greater flexibility to meet customer/supplier needs outside office hours
• Better work-life balance
• Avoids long and stressful commutes
• Saves money
• Reduction in travelling time means more time can be spent on personal or family commitments or pursuing outside hobbies/interests
• Supports caring responsibilities (children/elderly relatives)