Work where you work best

Nomad covers the benefits of home working, secure networks, health & safety requirements and the setting up of secure wireless networksThere is no single best solution but today the requirements to allow staff to work flexibly in a way that is best for them, the customer and the business all exist. These requirements include the technology, the policies and the management approaches. However, implementing flexible working remains a complex process and a struggle for councils to implement. Nomad has continued to collect examples of what works well and what often seems to go astray. From this knowledge base it is possible to suggest the better ways forward.
In this article we will look at the key issues in HR, technology, finance, and cultural change involved in rolling out flexible working on a larger scale within organisations. Although creating a business case for the change and implementing that change is not straightforward the overwhelming evidence is that there are very significant benefits to be had. These benefits are tangible in terms of better efficiency and reduced costs but also pervasive in improved staff morale and customer satisfaction.

Happy workforce
The evidence is that staff work best, are most productive and happiest when they can control their working environment to suit the demands of both the job and the rest of their life. Once they can choose where and when to work, how to minimise interruption and buy into a management and support structure that delivers they never want to return to older ways of working. In local councils many staff are now established in this work model but many have yet to make the transition.
Nomad, hosted by Cambridgeshire County Council, supports and promotes this work and has built up a large knowledge base and experience based on activity around the UK. The assertions that this is a better way of working are supported by case study evidence that shows falling sickness rates, increased productivity (sometimes startlingly better) but above all better service to the customers.
Moving an organisation to this way of working, especially on a large scale and as part of a strategic plan is far from trivial but it is increasingly well understood. The issues are overwhelmingly those concerned with the people – so if you are contemplating this type of change what needs to be done?
Without doubt a really thorough process that sets out the vision, its scope and expectations has to be the starting point. Vague expressions of support from senior managers are rarely, if ever, enough. If the chief executive does not make a statement by renouncing his or her cellular office then it can hardly be a surprise when others are loath to join in the change.

Inadequate communication
Many councils work diligently at producing the policy sets (HR, benefits, technology etc) that are needed to support flexible working but then these are not effectively sold to the organisation with a clarity and resolve that this will be the way that we now work. HR departments sometimes seem to feel that having delivered the policies their responsibility is at an end. There are inadequate communications and promotion plans in place, and often no volume targets for acceptance that tie in with the rollout as set out in the wider business case.
The result is that a year down the line little has changed. The significance of this type of shift is profound and it spills into many areas of HR beyond the obvious. If annual staff appraisal processes are not modified to sit well alongside, if disciplinary guidance is not adjusted to better fit distance managed staff, then problems arise and these all provide good reasons to slow down and stop the change.
The technology is also a vital component. Ensuring that there are a manageable set of technical packages and set-ups that fit the staff profiles and that these are robust requires real time, investment and maintenance. When staff are working alone systems have to be very straightforward. The lack of an experienced colleague a few desks away, who can be consulted when the unexpected occurs, can rapidly lead to a loss of confidence. ICT training and support services will need to be reconfigured and experience shows that the training component is often underestimated.
Relying on 100 per cent levels of connectivity when staff move off a hardwired network that is fully controlled by the council is also likely to be a point of failure. To combat this increasing numbers of systems are being enabled to operate without continuous connectivity. (This can also be an operating cost benefit.) Issues of remote system management and upgrade have to be considered to ensure a stable working environment beyond initial deployment.

Initial costs
Much of this will require investment and increased costs. Overall the business case will of course show a benefit but the fact that the funding needs to be re-allocated amongst the parties can cause problems. Often the finance, as seen from the operating service managers’ perspective, does not make obvious the elements of ICT support and accommodation. Untangling these frequently longstanding approaches so that the budgets can be re-distributed is bound to lead to ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ amongst managers.
It is unfair to expect support service managers to face this alone and this is one of the reasons that visible and real leadership and ownership from the top of the organisation is a key requirement.
Does all of this make it seem that the change is not worth the effort? Nomad’s experience is that the effort is worth it and the gains can be great. Salford’s benefits and council tax service saw a jump of nearly 50 per cent in its productivity; Peterborough’s housing repairs saw routine repair time drop from 20 to seven days; Surrey removed 900 desks, Leeds’s home based staff reported increases in employee satisfaction.
With every council needing to work more efficiently, to save unnecessary costs and deliver better services to growing populations there can be no doubt that if your council is not seriously engaged on widespread corporate change in the work environment it is high time it was.

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