Remote working – is it a winning formula?

Did the Olympics help kick-start flexible working in Britain?

With its inspirational ceremonies, impressive tally of medals for Team GB and sporting camaraderie among competing nations, the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games was generally hailed a triumph. But in the run up there were real concerns about how the busy old capital’s transport system would cope: would hundreds of thousands of tourists and visitors be disappointed by long delays? Equally important, would people be able to get to work, or would the Government’s efforts to revive economic growth be put on the backburner?

Along with the plea to commuters to ‘work around the Games’, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged Britain would remain ‘Open for Business’ throughout. Operation StepChange, a scheme that encouraged government employees to work remotely, was trialled. This wasn’t new to tech-savvy circles used to connectivity any time and any place. Meanwhile, the skeptics automatically equated remote working with skiving.

Operation StepChange spearheaded various work practices: video-conferencing replaced face-to-face meetings; public-sector employees worked flexible hours or from home; single security pass and joined-up technology allowed staff to work from almost any government building.

Outside the Civil Service, the attitude was less positive. A study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) showed 48 per cent of employers – both in London and nationwide – were not making changes to working practices during the Olympics.

Productivity levels of businesses during Olympics

However, when Vodafone conducted a survey to see how the summer had altered people’s attitudes towards flexible working, more than half of workers in London and the Home Counties said they wanted to work flexibly on a regular basis. Almost a quarter changed their normal working arrangements during the period, citing that they achieved better productivity as a result. And over half the employers either already allow flexible working or are more open to it as a result of the scheme.
The survey also made the role of technology very clear in the move towards flexible working. Over half of all workers surveyed felt they needed more equipment in order to work remotely effectively.

There are more positives moving forward. A survey by Portal discovered nearly two thirds of businesses allowing employees to work from home during the Games saw little or no drop in productivity, and almost 41 per cent had invested in new technology, showing a real commitment to flexible working moving forwards. Despite this upbeat note, one inescapable doubt remains: that many businesses are not yet ready to make flexible working a regular fixture.

Remote working and its effect on productivity

Why? Well, anyone who has tried to introduce new working practices in their own organisation will say the same thing. Giving employees the right technology is the simple bit. Giving them the freedom to manage their time as they choose is much harder – mainly because it means transforming long-established office cultures, policies and attitudes. It takes a considerable amount of trust on the part of managers, for instance, to give their teams free rein to work from home.

So the question remains: will the Olympics turn out to be a genuine turning point for our working culture? Or is our race towards flexible working more a marathon than a sprint?