Technology is not an obstacle – it’s up to management to start thinking flexibly

UK entrepreneur Mark Dixon claims we’re in the throes of a ‘workplace revolution’ where the traditional 9-5 is replaced by anytime, anywhere working. It’s been a long time in the making.

Business guru Charles Handy predicted it in 1989, claiming more of us would pursue ‘portfolio’ careers instead of a single-track job. Others then sounded the death knell for the traditional office, predicting nomadic work would replace cubicle careers. “People no longer hold to the concept of careers or jobs, but of shared values and responsibilities,” said author Jim Collins in 2007. Yet it’s only in the past few years that these concepts have come together.

The big catalysts have come from technology, regulation and, perhaps surprisingly, the last recession.

Once expensive and unreliable, the technology needed to set up employees at home or equip mobile workers is increasingly affordable and accessible. Cloud services make it easy to operate from a smaller (or even no fixed) office space, and work-provided smartphones, netbooks and laptops are increasingly common. The Ministry of Defence spent £6.6bn equipping its staff to work flexibly last year, with the expectation the cost savings (in commute time, property costs, utilities and absenteeism) would far outweigh the initial outlay.

What began as a largely ‘family friendly’ movement is now the norm: ‘digital natives’ and Generation Y employees generally expect flexible working to be an option, and most enlightened employers already offer some elements – staggered or compressed hours, job-sharing, home-working – on an informal, case-by-case basis. Official 2008 stats claim 30 percent of UK working women and 20 percent of men already work flexibly. Consultancy KPMG claims that 98 percent of those who request flexible options get it.

Early adopters are going further to make flexible options a differentiating point. Google is famous for its 20 percent time; Sysdoc consultancy talks of ‘the Sysdoc way’ – a commitment to flexibility that permeates every part of the business and includes offsite working and post-assignment sabbaticals.

Fears that the recession would kill flexible working have proven unfounded – in fact, the opposite appears to have happened. Mindful of how expensive drastic job-cuts proved in the last recession, companies large and small offered staff longer holidays or shorter working weeks to save jobs.

There’s also another stream of employees – those who were made redundant — fuelling the so-called ‘freelance economy’ and helping to create the mindset needed to make flex work. According to PeoplePerHour’s 2010 survey small businesses are increasingly turning to freelancers for certain jobs – particularly for technology and web development.

US-based think-tank TechCast. predicts 30 percent of employees in developed nations will telework at least two days a week by 2019.

Denise Keating, the CEO of the Employers’ Forum on Age, sees these trends accelerating and believes flexible working will drive entrepreneurship and expose more employees to its benefits. The obstacle is no longer the technology. Now it’s up to management to start thinking flexibly.

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Matthew Stibbe is writer-in-chief at Articulate Marketing. He is also an avid blogger, closet geek and HP fanatic.