Employer attitudes halting rise of flexible working, claims debate

– Research report launched at London Transport Museum debate reveals working from home for part of the day is a popular choice –

13 May 2009: Could Britain ever really embrace flexible working? Gordon Brown is a part time homeworker but can the trend grow further? These questions were posed to panellists at the London Transport Museum’s annual debate last week, ‘Homeworking: the end of the line for commuting?’ Following the day’s earlier report launch from the FUTURES research project into flexible working, the debate raised many observations and discussed the issues preventing more of the British workforce from working flexibly. These barriers range from embedded employer attitudes and transport pricing, to technological and work role limits.

The new report from the FUTURES research project revealed that flexible working is much more popular than traditionally believed. National figures suggest that 6 per cent of full-time employees work at least one day a week from home. However, the research reveals that part-day homeworking is more than twice as popular, with 14 per cent of full-time employees now working part of the day at home.

Experts in their fields, the panellists discussed the many benefits that flexible working can bring to the employee, the employer and society. Part-day homeworking lessens peak time travel on the nation’s transport networks, and combined with the benefits of whole day homeworking where fewer trips are taken, is hugely beneficial to transport services. In addition to this, reduced transport usage benefits the environment, whilst for the individual it provides greater flexibility to manage employment around family commitments. Combined with the business efficiency arguments presented, with one panellist commenting that the average cost of a desk in Central London is £14,000, the benefits of flexible working are clear.

However, the debate challenged whether this could continue to rise in the face of embedded attitudes about how Britain works – “some organisations are ready and some just aren’t” commented one panellist. The debate concluded in a call for government policy makers to intervene to encourage, support and ensure the benefits of flexible working are seized.

Attitudinal barriers
The greatest barrier identified was the embedded attitudes of employers. Many organisations still don’t encourage or allow flexible working due to established managerial working practices. Trusting employees to be as efficient at home as they are in the office as well as taking responsibility for home-based staff is something many managers still object to, with the debate calling for increased investment in managerial education.

Philip Ross, Cordless Group: “Some organisations are ready for this and others just aren’t. But as the cost benefits of flexible working become understood, everyone will adopt this approach.”

Graham Fisher, Orange: “A lot is about the attitude from the employer and a more reasoned attitude to flexible working is required.

“And I suspect you’re not seeing more than two days working at home a week, because of health and safety policy in this country. When more than two days are spent working at home a week, your home becomes your place of work and so your employer is liable for your electrical installation, your desk, your repetitive strain injury, and everything else. So many employers are happy to have employees working from home as long as they are not home-based.”

Eric Sampson CBE, Chairman of the Intelligent Transport Society: “A lot of activity in organisations that is traditionally done through people meeting around the table doesn’t need to be done like that. If organisations can rethink their attitudes and loosen up a little there is a lot of potential in flexible working.”

Transport barriers
More than one panellist raised the issue of the inflexibility of transport season tickets, which assume travel five days a week within peak hours, providing no incentive for workers to work whole days from home. One approach that was highlighted was Transport for London’s pay as you go Oyster card scheme, which charges travellers for the trips they take with a daily price cap, with upcoming inclusion of overground train services within London hailed as a uniquely flexible solution.

Dr David Quarmby CBE, Independent Transport Commission: “Car park pricing and season tickets are all built around a full-day five day commute. Transport systems and operators stand to benefit from more flexible working arrangements by commuters, quite apart from society generally; ticketing should not be a barrier, and technology now could handle it – as the pay-as-you-go Oyster does in London.”

Eric Sampson CBE: “Pressure is growing for changing some of the more ridiculous ticketing regimes around.”

Professional barriers
Another issue raised was the potential discrimination against professionals outside of the ‘knowledge economy’. In some industries and professions the nature of the role makes working from home seemingly impossible, including retail, teaching, domestic services, maintenance and construction. While working from home in other professions just isn’t suitable, such as in a creative environment where independent working can in fact reduce productivity.

Dr David Quarmby CBE: “Whole chunks of the workforce, often in lower paid jobs, don’t have the opportunity of part-home-based working, or flexibility in travel times, because the nature of their work means they have to be there to do it. It can be another source of social divisiveness.”

Technological barriers
Advances in technology in the form of email and other telecommunication have allowed more people to work from home than ever before. Increased mobile access to the workplace has been a notable facilitator of homeworking However, the ‘digital divide’, separating those who have access to broadband internet and those who don’t, is at risk of creating two classes.

Graham Fisher: “Changes in technology will roll broadband access out further. At the moment there are areas of the country that still do not have access to broadband and it is often residents of these areas that do the longest commutes. These people have little chance of working from home in the near future until national coverage is achieved.”

Philip Ross: “We are some way away from everyone being able to replicate what we have in the office in the home, but technology advances may soon blur the boundaries of where work takes place.

“The Digital Divide is serious. Those that have broadband at home have a huge educational advantage over those who don’t. The concept of a connected community, including healthcare and e-health, means there is greater reason for government to get involved.”

Professor Glenn Lyons, chair of the debate and co-author of the report commented:

“Reducing the strain on our national networks and providing flexibility for employers and employees is an attractive proposition to the nation. However, barriers still exist, preventing the majority of the British workforce from accessing flexible working practices.

“Flexibility in transport prices and managerial attitudes were raised as two major stumbling blocks to the rise of flexible working. These are both issues that government policy can address, preventing discrimination against those who would benefit from working an untraditional working week, while lightening the load on our already strained rail and road networks.”

Sam Mullins, Director, London Transport Museum added:

“This debate has demonstrated how transport is really at the heart of society, now and into the future.

“In the last few years the Museum has entered a new era, with our focus not just on transport past, but the present and future of transport.”

The debate was attended by VIPs from a range of sectors including industry, academia, national, regional and local government and other opinion leaders.

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