Flexible working legislation should be for all, not just parents of young children

November 27, 2012

–Scott Dodds is the General Manager of Marketing & Operations for Microsoft UK. Microsoft was a founding member of the Anywhere Working Consortium. The opinions expressed are his own.–

Nick Clegg’s support for flexible working for parents is welcome but if the UK is to capitalise on the opportunities offered by the knowledge economy we need to move from making flexibility an option for the minority to a stance that makes it available to the large majority of us.

Flexible working is not less productive than office working: 72 per cent of companies surveyed by Regus reported higher productivity after implementing it. An article in the September 2012 Journal of Economic Behaviour & Organization found that telecommuters outperformed in creative tasks and an August 2012 article in the Harvard Business Review website, based on research by Edinger Consulting Group, found that remote workers are actually more engaged than their desk-bound peers. With ‘anywhere working’ people get closer to customers, work smarter and take the weight off roads and public transport at peak times, reducing commuting stress as well as environmental impact.

Big changes to working practices can be achieved. Take the Olympics where the success of the Games extended far beyond sporting prowess.  Many had predicted travel chaos but Londoners were persuaded to work remotely or stagger their commute times, meaning the transport network coped. The independent Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 said it had been amazed by the success of the public transport despite TfL reporting record overall numbers on its network, expanding to 4.5 million tube journeys on the final Tuesday of the Games.

London, and the massive workload the city supports, carried on regardless. According to a YouGov survey of London-based businesses, 13 per cent of companies provided extra flexibility during the Games. Of these, 77 per cent said employees had been positive about the change and just five per cent reported a negative reaction. Forty-five per cent said the tactic had been good for business and just eight per cent said it had been bad.

There’s no reason why a combination of re-phasing commuting and trusting people to work from remote locations shouldn’t exist all the time across UK cities. Of course, there remain many jobs that require people to be at a given spot at a given time. But for the rest of us, ‘work’ should be something we do and not somewhere we go.

The Government has a huge role to play in setting examples for its own employees and in introducing policies that make it more attractive for employers to follow suit. Tax breaks for organisations that embrace flexible working would help, as would tariffs that make it more attractive for people to use roads and public transport at off-peak times. Awareness-raising will be critical and a public information campaign that stresses the advantages of flexible working would help combat the prejudices and antediluvian thinking that still sees flexibility as “shirking from home”. Government also needs to invest in the creation of ‘third spaces’ that allow people to work anywhere, anytime, for example in conversions of unused retail properties, libraries, pubs and other sites that are empty or may benefit from being repurposed.

We have the opportunity to come up with a very different way of working, and that opportunity is simply too good to squander.

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