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June 21, 2006 10:29 am

Flexible working: ‘How do I know that they’re really working?’

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Telecommuting and hotdesking were not terms that former generations needed to know. Today, flexible working practices have brought them all into vogue.

The idea of working at various locations and times offers businesses significant benefits – if only they can overcome the associated challenges.

Working from home is an obvious approach to flexible working, but another model is hotdesk or touchdown working, where employees drop into the nearest regional office as needed, and use any available desk space.

With road congestion becoming increasingly inconvenient, and with global warming high on the list of concerns, such practices are increasingly becoming the obvious approach, says Caroline Jones, senior analyst at research company Gartner.

“The easiest way to do that in a big city is not to have everyone going into the centre of town to work,” says Ms Jones, adding that telecommuting was a fashionable subject 10 years ago before companies grew bored with the constant hype.

“In reality, it will always be there but it’s a background thing,” she says. Employees often do it on an ad hoc basis without a formal company flexible working programme in place.

A part-time worker with two children at home, Ms Jones still uses a dial-up connection from home. One of the big turn-offs for companies considering flexible working is the application of unnecessary technology, she warns.

David Dunbar, head of BT’s Workstyle flexible working practice, agrees. “We have 11,500 home workers and we no longer provide webcams, partly because they never used them, and partly because BT putting a webcam into an employee’s ‘office’ in their bedroom is unthinkable,” he says.

“If you make it too fancy, you’ll turn employees into geeks. You’ve got to make sure that the technology is simple. Make it work, and make it dependable.”

Some technologies can increase worker productivity with a relatively small administrative overhead.

A broadband connection into the home with access to a corporate intranet can connect employees to office resources cheaply and effectively.

Security concerns can be partly mitigated with the use of virtual private networks, but companies still have to think about the security of the PC in the employee’s home.

“It’s better if the machines are owned by the company because they can control what you have on them,” says Gartner’s Ms Jones.

Managing a PC remotely might help to stop it becoming infected, but it still leaves corporate data wide open if a machine is stolen from an employee’s home. Disk encryption software can be used to lock data on the hard drive.

Hard drive security could be less of a problem for workers further down the corporate ladder. Data entry clerks and administrative staff could use thin clients to carry out repetitive tasks from home.

A thin client is essentially a screen and a lightweight computer based on a cheaper operating system, such as Linux, which can access software applications remotely.

Sensitive data need not be stored locally on the hard drive. Office space prices rarely fall, but technology prices do, making this proposition more attractive for businesses each year.

But there are dangers for companies that simply throw technology at the flexible working problem, no matter how simple and well executed that technology is.

Flexible workers may work at different times and in different locations from each other. Managing them properly requires forethought.

“A surprising number of managers and especially those in the middle ranks still have the same old mentality: ‘If they’re not in front of me how do I know that they’re working?’” laments Derrick Neufeld, an assistant professor of information systems at Canada’s Richard Ivey School of Business.

One answer to the management problem is to move to a task-based performance assessment, judging employees not by how long they spend in the office, but by what they achieve.

That could require different evaluation metrics for different roles, leading to lengthy and complex shifts in company policy, from the human resources department outwards.

It is easy to see how the real technology story behind flexible working could be less about webcams and more about enhancing human resources software at the back end.

This could be the area where smarter software really comes into its own – and yet unlike webcams and smart phones, it is a technology that many employees will rarely need to see.

Join the debate at www.ft.com/work.

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