Ringing the changes on flexible working

BT has consistently been voted one of the most flexible companies over the last few years. But, as Dave Dunbar, head of BT Workstyle, explains, it’s about more than just offering flexible work options. It’s a whole change in the way the company does business.

mother and child, flexible working, work life balance


The recession could see a rise in flexible working, but it needs to be carefully planned and not just panicked into on a short term basis, says the head of flexible working services of one of the top British firms promoting new ways of working.

Dave Dunbar, head of BT Workstyle, says companies who get flexible working and its benefits – reduced overheads such as office buildings and travel costs, increased productivity and better recruitment and retention rates, including more emphasis on head hunting talented staff – will prosper.

But those who just see it as a short term measure for reducing employees’ hours will not reap the full benefits. “I suspect some organisations are rather panicking into it and will not cover off the cultural areas they need to,” he says.

“Flexible working is a way of thinking. A lot of organisations are surprised when they take a tactical approach and implement it in an ad hoc way, that they find that nothing much is changing.”

He adds that flexible working is in a way a logical extension of the way people are being educated these days. At university, students are taught to seek out information for themselves and work without supervision.

“These are a lot of the characteristics necessary for flexible working and yet these people get taken into industry and we bolt them down to a desk,” he says. “Industry is not making use of these advanced skills.”

Flexi workforce

Some 70,000 out of around 110,000 employees at BT work flexibly and its policy on flexible working, which was launched a decade ago, runs across the board rather than being aimed at particular staff, such as parents.

Dunbar feels that the major flaw with the right to request flexible working is that “it does not do a single thing for the underlying culture of an organisation”.

That 70,000 does not include BT’s engineers, who make use of mobilising technologies but are not classed as flexible workers.

Even so, he says, area engineers work effectively from their vans, picking up their jobs list electronically. He believes that BT is nearing its limits over flexibility as “there are reasons some staff need to have fixed desks”, for instance, those working in very specialist areas who need non-networked equipment.

“There are limits as to how far you can push this for a principal,” says Dunbar.

Among those who work flexibly, a growing number are working from home. The company has 14,500 contracted home workers plus many occasional home workers and mobile workers who hot desk. They can book flexible desks in over 100 BT buildings in some 23 countries.

They have also used their exchange buildings to encourage people to work more locally. Dunbar says it is about using the BT estate more flexibly and efficiently. The local hubs allow people such as home workers to have contact with other staff on a regular basis and to organise meetings.

Staff can also work at the BT central London building which is still used by over 8,000 people a day even though it has only 1,600 workstations. By making use of office space more flexibly and sharing spaces BT thinks it is gearing up to the demands of 21st century working.

It has a dedicated team which books office space internally and uses concierge facilities at the main sites to make best use of the flexible facilities.

Desks can be booked online, but there is also a support desk. Most bookings are done online, but 15-20% are still done by phone with most cancellations being done over the phone. Dunbar himself uses this system as he works between different offices.

The day before we talked, for instance, he had booked a desk at the Edinburgh office from 8.30-11am.

He reckons that most offices run with a utilisation of between 40-50%, study after study shows this is typical. “With flexible working we can get that up to 80 or 90%. It is much more efficient,” he says. BT estimates that it has saved £550m a year alone through cutting office overheads.

Flexible working, however, offers many other savings. Dunbar says BT have around 1,000 women taking maternity leave per annum so having the kind of flexible working which encourages women to stay in their job after having children saves a recruitment process, which costs around £2,000 a go.

Dunbar adds: “Over and above that we would have training and other costs which would probably be the same again per person.

The big unknown though is also the biggest potential benefit and that is the retention of skill, relationships and experience that training alone won’t replace.” BT has impressive retention rates with more than 99% of women returning to work after maternity leave.


Dunbar understands the appeal of homeworking for parents who are trying to have a good work life balance and, interestingly, given that managers are often worried about homeworking being a licence for slacking, he says one of his main concerns about it is that homeworkers tend to be over conscientious and work too hard.

“We need to make sure homeworkers have a good work life balance,’ he says. “We are operating in a global environment and if we are not careful our staff could be working a very extended day.”

He says homeworkers often overwork because they feel their employer is doing them a favour and are terrified that favour will be taken away.

BT makes clear that it is a win win situation and that homeworkers are not treated differently to anyone else and interestingly Dunbar says the gender and age balance for its homeworkers is no different than that for office workers.

The company supports homeworkers by advising them that it is ok to take their lunch break, to turn off the computer at night and to be seen having a coffee somewhere.

“Having that made explicit helps a lot,” says Dunbar. One way of helping is for the company to ensure calls outside the employee’s hours are diverted elsewhere.

It has also set up mutual support networks. He says remote teams as a result tend to be more proactive about looking out for each other and stronger.

Dunbar tells an anecdote to illustrate how the support network functions. Someone from an extended team called him up to say they were worried that someone was logging on at night and might be overworking.

He contacted the worker and talked to her. She had been working at night to make up for time she took off earlier in the day to play with her child and said she was happy to work in this way.

Dunbar says he himself used to take an hour or so off when his son came home from school and would then make up the time so he quite understands this way of working. He adds that the incident indicates how colleagues look out for each other.

The fact that homeworkers can go into local offices for meetings and hotdesking from time to time means that they meet other employees they would not normally meet and so they form broader networks than in the past.

But Dunbar counsels that homeworkers offered flexibility by their employers around things like school plays need to return that flexibility by, for instance, working evenings or weekends on occasion to ensure the work gets done.

The management issues involved are perhaps the most difficult ones to overcome, but they are not insurmountable, says Dunbar.

“It just takes a slight shift in management from presenteeism to management by objective,” he states. BT staff had a lot of change management training to get over their individual fears about new ways of managing.

Some people were afraid that their contribution would not be seen if they were not in the office or they would not get promoted or supported.

Managers feared it was an attack on their status and that if they could not see staff how would they know they were working.

Dunbar’s response was: “You can see them right now in the office, but how do you know they are working and not surfing the net? You need to set clear output objectives, then the output becomes the measure rather than where it is done.”

He says overcoming fears of flexible working among middle managers was a main plank of the changeover to flexible working.

The way of doing this was to focus on what the upsides were for them, which included staff being able to work more independently, greater productivity and clearer was of managing appraisals as part of a more objective-driven management style. He adds that having a clearer idea of the team’s objectives gave managers the ability to focus more on what the business wanted and to have a greater leadership role.

The secret, it seems, to getting the most out of flexible working is to think things through and let the benefits speak for themselves.

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