Your flexible friends

Written by Simon Holmyard on 23 September 2014 in Opinion
Opinion

Flexible working can save councils cash – but what is the best way to deal with the challenges it presents to the ICT department?

Flexible working is at an all-time high. Currently around 14% of the population work from home.

This number is expected to increase significantly as new technologies and the regulatory environment combine to create the ideal backdrop for workforce mobility.

Almost three quarters of employers feel that flexible working has a positive impact on staff retention, and a further 73% feel it improves employee motivation, according to research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

As well as creating a motivated workforce, there are clear cost savings to be made from the introduction of flexible working policies through energy efficiencies and property rationalisation.

Homeworking and hot desking reduce the pressure on space and create energy savings -Wakefield Council, for example, achieved savings of £1.6 million through property rationalisation achieved through the introduction of flexible working strategies.

Real benefits

But one question hangs in the air: does flexible working ultimately benefit citizens and citizen services?

Or is it simply a box-ticking exercise for government agencies bowing to pressure from above?

There must be more advantages to citizens than the joy of dealing with a happy, motivated and responsive civil service freed from commuter chaos – although it makes life more pleasant for all.

Actually, this transformation of the way we work is the only way to provide the services customers demand now and in the future.

Organisations must be equipped with the tools to respond to customers in the way the customers choose, and giving staff fast, secure access to data from multiple channels enables them to respond to the needs of their citizens.

Whether answering a question via Twitter, optimising a community website for mobile devices, creating digital platforms for online payments or just picking up the phone, all points of contact should work together as part of an integrated, digitally inclusive smart working strategy that will improve citizens’ service experience.  

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate

To truly benefit the citizen, government agencies need to be investing in the right kinds of technologies that won’t just aid mobile working initiatives but that will ultimately enable seamless collaboration between disparate, previously disconnected organisations.  

Consider permissions granted by local councils for road closure due to resurfacing work, and then again a week later the same road needing closure for a water company to dig up the newly surfaced road to lay new pipes.

There’s no doubt about it, it’s inconvenient to inhabitants, inefficient and a waste of resource. 

Now consider the same scenario using unified communications tools: the council opens a ‘virtual meeting space’, the contractors click on a link from their smartphones or laptops, and all join a video conference to coordinate plans and timings. 

The same can apply to more serious issues - criminal trials in which the police, crown prosecution and probation service need to coordinate from different locations using a diversity of separate systems. 

If they can communicate from anywhere, at any time rather than waiting until their diaries synchronise, or coordinating with their IT teams to patch together a pixelated videoconference using legacy systems, they’re saving money and speeding up the process.

Rules for success

There are many considerations for the CIO to address before agreeing to roll out a flexible working strategy.

Accessing the corporate network from a diversity of locations, via a variety of devices, places a strain on the network. 

Unless organisations have clear performance measures in place, flexible working removes the control the ICT department has over the performance of the network, and the applications which run across it.

The temptation is to throw more bandwidth at the problem, but this is an expensive and short-term solution.  

The pragmatic CIO should take stock of an organisation’s ICT estate before adopting a flexible working strategy.

Take a department as vast as the Department for Work and Pensions for example: if just 20% work flexibly, that’s thousands of staff accessing corporate data, not necessarily over the Local Area Network or Wide Area Network but via Wi-Fi or 4G.

If the CIO surveys exactly what he or she has in terms of ICT estate, and understands how it’s used using application performance measures, informed decisions can be made which can result in cost savings whilst still ensuring the service provided to citizens is only improved. 

Security is of course a major consideration in flexible working.

80% of respondents in a survey of various government agencies felt that their organisations need to overhaul data security before considering a flexible working strategy, and three quarters said that, in order to allow more staff to work flexibly, they felt their organisation needed to ‘re-evaluate its communications infrastructure’.  

When it comes to investing in flexible working, in order to benefit citizens as well as staff, organisations need to follow three simple rules:

  • Address ICT investments holistically rather than as standalone purchases, and make sure they’re futureproof – do they integrate with other systems, in other buildings, used by other parties? Will they cope with future technology and organisational change?
  • Invest in a training programme to encourage adoption of these technologies – if they’re not user friendly, staff will ignore them wherever they are, and will carry on as they did before; it’s crucial to take steps not to isolate those employees who are not technology-savvy
  • Ensure citizens are at the heart of every workplace strategy – even if they seem to be only affected indirectly, if it’s a decision regarding the workplace it will have affect the service experienced by citizens

These guidelines provide a framework for flexible working strategies which will improve collaboration, facilitate better partnerships, enable collective working initiatives and crucially, will have a positive impact on both staff and citizens.

Simon Holmyard is head of public sector at managed service provider Easynet

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