Flexible future is more than just a numbers game

A few weeks ago, mobile operator 02 trumpeted “the UK’s biggest flexible working pilot” in which staff who would normally commute to the office were asked instead to work away from the firm’s Slough HQ. Around 2,500 people took part in what was ostensibly a test of 02’s contingency plans ahead of expected travel disruption during the Olympics.

Results were overwhelmingly positive. A third of staff claimed to have been more productive, no fewer than 2,000 commuting hours were eradicated and employees were able to do more sleeping, relaxing and meeting up with family. Understandably, 02 didn’t miss the opportunity to wax lyrical about how its “newly strengthened networks and collaboration technology” stood up to the increase in traffic, but the wider story is a genuinely positive one and, as a vision of the near future, just as fascinating.

Except for one crucial thing. This “audacious experiment”, the “biggest flexible working initiative of its kind”, lasted for the grand total of a single working day – 24 little hours, as Dinah Washington might have put it. Because the real issue here is surely much larger than the admittedly impressive set of statistics this experiment produced.

Yes, electricity consumption went down 12 per cent; yes, there was a cut of 12.2 tonnes of CO2eq and a 53 per cent drop in the amount of water used. And yes, it’s worth noting how the use of instant messaging and data traffic in general rose substantially. But it’s tempting to ask what people were expecting. When you take people out of a building, the cost of running that building is likely to come down substantially. You’re also likely to see a corresponding increase in the volume and cost of staff communication. The figures were indeed impressive – but they were predictable, too.

The most interesting insight into this significant if short-lived experiment came from Ben Dowd, 02’s business director. “Line managers are used to managing people they can see,” he commented. “Managing them remotely is a completely different thing.” And this is where the true challenge for flexible working lies – not in a single day of headline gains and sustainability ‘big ticks’, but in tough decisions that need to be made in two mission critical areas: firstly in the amount of office space needed for the flexible future ahead of us; and secondly in the management and make-up of teams where flexible working is a relatively untested phenomenon. Sustainability and CSR headlines will result automatically from the genuine accomplishment of getting these things right.

These decisions will have to take into account the more prosaic demands of lease lengths and the entirely different workflows needed to cater for new and often alien appraisals of what constitutes the team dynamic. All this on communication platforms we probably aren’t even aware of yet. (Remember ,Twitter didn’t even exist in 2007. What will we be using in a further five years’ time?)

Flexible working is here to stay and 02’s experiment is a great reminder that it really does work. But the difficult calculations necessary to match future facilities provision to these new ways of working are part of a bigger adventure that organisations are only just beginning to undertake.

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