Blog: Flex and the city


Flexible working, or agile working as it’s often called, is growing in popularity. The ONS reports that the number of “home workers” has doubled since 1998 thanks to the rise in the number of freelancers and new attitudes by employers to flexible and remote working.  

Despite the growth in home working, TUC figures show that nearly 3 million British workers commute for more than two hours per day – with numbers of long commuters increasing not decreasing.  

That’s a sore topic for welsh commuters travelling to London right now.  The closure of the Severn Tunnel is officially extending journey times by an average of 34 minutes (though some commuters are complaining it’s a lot longer!)  The electrification work is vital and will improve the service long term, but short term pain is biting into travellers – and it’s not like ‘business as usual’ is utopia. Frequent travellers already moan of extensive delays, overcrowded carriages and missed connections.

As the tunnel closure increases the pain, I wonder if agile working could offer a better alternative to commuting, at least while the journey is so painful?  It’s not just suited for commuters to London – bus services to some parts of Wales are so infrequent that some highly skilled workers are doing unskilled jobs to avoid a long commute – home working could open up a whole new market for loyal, skilled workers.

Some companies are afraid to embrace home working in case they see an impact on productivity. However, recent research by Vodafone saw 83% of global companies claiming flexible working improved productivity and 58% said it had boosted their reputation. Three out of five (61%) said that flexible working options had increased their company’s earnings. It seems therefore that flexible working is better for business and keeps employees happier and more engaged – so why aren’t more welsh businesses embracing it?

There are, of course, practical concerns about allowing staff to work from home. Businesses cannot just shut the office and allow everyone to work in their kitchen! However, for roles where physical geography is less important than productivity, home working can be a good solution.  

Employers just need to get the support systems, processes and technology in place to ensure everyone knows who is working where and when.  I think it’s great, some of my own employees work from home, and I have helped other businesses put in software systems to manage home workers. Here are my recommendations for success:

  • Ensure employees know what’s expected of them in terms of activity or performance
  • Agree how they can be contacted and set expectations around communication – i.e. a daily phone call at the start of the day if working at home.
  • A weekly or monthly work schedule with deadlines should be agreed and it made clear that work must be complete the same as it would under normal working circumstances.Employees must understand they are still part of the team/department and therefore can’t let people down.
  • It’s important to maintain regular team meetings or events, which may mean that home workers have to come in where possible, or use virtual technology like webcams to ensure their involvement. Home workers should be prepared to come into the office if necessary – flexible working works both ways.
  • All team members need to know where everyone is at any one time. This should be visible and recorded in a centrally accessible electronic diary that should break down any barriers that prevent the employee being contacted. Remember, too, that employers can be ill, and accrue staff holiday, even when working from home!
  • Technology is essential – however, security is also very important and you should agree a security policy for home workers in order to protect vital data, such as company passwords and logins. Agree whether or not staff can use company technology for personal use.
  • Working at home can be isolating so you should also suggest that workers create an ‘office’ environment – albeit virtual – with regular, agreed breaks and to follow the same work practices, policies and procedures as office staff.
  • Ensure that you give feedback and praise – home working should not make a difference in how people are rewarded or praised for tasks done well or completed on time or ahead of schedule.  Equally if people are not completing things on time or tasks not done as agreed take time to understand the reason and assess if further support or assistance is required.
  • Don’t forget to copy home workers into any electronic communication that includes work news, success/wins, activities, company news to ensure that they still feel part of the organisation and are not forgotten.
  • Finally, make a note of any changes, positive or otherwise in productivity and wellbeing of home workers. Agree what measures will determine if home working is successful – arrangements should be regularly reviewed to make sure they work for both parties.

Overall, the Severn Tunnel may be bringing some unwanted travel challenges between Wales and England – but for employers the challenges could create opportunities too. I’d recommend welsh businesses take a fresh look at agile working.  

Adrian Lewis is the commercial director for welsh software developers Codel Software and has been advising businesses on how software can best manage HR challenges for more than 10 years. 

Image credit: régine debatty