Guy Holden, vice-president and general manager of Global WorkPlace Solutions at Johnson Controls, EMEA
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Special Feature

New Flexible Working Legislation – A Business Edge?

We talk to Guy Holden, vice-president and general manager of Global WorkPlace Solutions at Johnson Controls, EMEA, to find out whether businesses might benefit from this and how rapidly developing technology can enable greater flexibility of working.

Every worker now has a right to ask for a change in work patterns. We talk to Guy Holden, vice-president and general manager of Global WorkPlace Solutions at Johnson Controls, EMEA, to find out whether businesses might benefit from this and how rapidly developing technology can enable greater flexibility of working.

Q. British employees can now request flexible working as a statutory right, but is it appropriate for all and are there strategic benefits for businesses that embrace it?

A. There are clear differences in the needs and structure of individual businesses and the roles of their workers. Flexible working is not a panacea for all roles, companies or activities and the strategy will need to be driven by the needs of the business. After all, a factory will need people present on its production lines.

However, if used to optimise people and businesses strategically, flexible working could lead to positive and profitable outcomes:

- Cost savings – According to research conducted by Johnson Controls, of 531 buildings in 41 countries only 49 per cent of office space and just 37 per cent of meeting rooms are utilised. The wastage is significant. Agile businesses that recognise work is a resource rather than a place you go to are already making savings by adopting flexible working practices. A recent example is of a global bank which saved £21m annually by transforming 20 per cent of its 100,000-workstation estate.

- Increased productivity and performance – It’s not just about cost savings though. By creating an environment where employees have higher levels of satisfaction and motivation, productivity also increases, which has a positive impact on the bottom line. Our research also shows that a culture of flexibility is widely established and recognised in the workplace. However, no one style of work fits all and flexible working is one means of harnessing individual work styles. Traditional styles such as face-to-face collaboration also contribute to increased performance and productivity. Nevertheless, research has shown flexible workers are 12 per cent more productive and lose fewer days to sickness.

- Improved talent acquisition – To continue to attract, retain and develop talent, businesses need to understand what drives their workforce. Modern knowledge workers are increasingly expecting more when it comes to balancing work and family life. Many express a preference for agreeing when they work, to ease their commuting times for example. Most rank workplace and work style as critical in their choice of employer. Businesses who have yet to accept this may risk losing out on the war for talent.

Q. What are some of the operational downsides and practical challenges to flexible working?

A. There are potential operational pitfalls for organisations wishing to take advantage of new working patterns. Flexible working can be difficult to implement in some situations, for example in a research and development context where the use of expensive equipment is needed. Remote workforces can also feel disconnected from the business, eroding team morale. Flexible working may raise security and data protection issues.

Q. What do businesses need to consider when defining their approach to flexible working?

A. New legislation means UK organisations need to evaluate the extent to which they introduce flexible working practices. Organisations should consider:

- Business goals – Flexible working should not be seen in isolation, but as one of a number of tools to help achieve business objectives.

- Other factors include the type of environment, workforce and the culture that leadership teams wish to create, as well as how the workplace and working practices can be used to support this. There should also be linkage between global and local office locations, design, and the expectations around policies for remote versus office-based working.

- User-centricity – The workforce is changing and a balance needs to be struck between what businesses need and what workers want. Research has shown that there is a high correlation between employee engagement and customer satisfaction. Inevitably, compromises will need to be made. It is important, therefore, for businesses to engage their people, capture their views and listen to their concerns about flexible working. They must feel comfortable with the technology and with its delivery mechanisms for the practice to thrive.

- Technology – Many professionals now find themselves spending more than 50 per cent of their working hours communicating and collaborating using technology. Colla­boration tools and connectivity are allowing greater flexibility for diverse and geographically challenged teams.

- Video conferencing (VC) and historically expensive VC rooms are being replaced by desk-based, individual video connections that visually connect staff more readily without the need for a dedicated space. Many employees are also, to differing extents, embracing bring your own device (BYOD) policies, using personally owned mobile devices to access privileged company resources such as databases.

- Data collection – An estimated 90 per cent of the data that exists today is less than two years old. Many organisations gather “Big Data”, but the challenge is to make sense of it and use it to deliver business outcomes in line with flexible working strategies.

- Real-time data collection, through systems such as our own Workplace Motion analytics platform, is helping business leaders to build a case for workplace change by decoding building occupancy rates and space utilisation.

Q. How should organisations prepare for the changes needed to implement flexible working?

A. Leadership teams must develop an approach to flexible working that supports optimal business operation. An understanding of people’s roles, time commitment, interaction and the current prevailing working practices should also help businesses to agree on a flexible working approach. During the implementation phase, pragmatic workplace strategies, integrated technologies and project management skills will minimise any business downtime while implementing lasting change.

Making flexibility work: Six tips for lasting change

Q. What could the flexible workplace of the future offer?

A. Findings from the Global Workplace Innovation studies indicate that the workplace of the future might offer a more enriched working experience and foster a variety of office environments that support different business outcomes, including:

- Strengthened corporate brands - People appreciate attractive and inspiring environments, and our research shows there is a clear connection between welfare/well-being and creativity/efficiency.

- Natural flexibility – This will become embedded within organisations allowing not only flexibility in working style, but also affording the corporate real estate (CRE) function flexibility in its real- estate strategy. The result will be a workplace that allows for contraction and expansion in demand and headcount over time. 

- A positive impact on costs – The flexible workplace by its very nature will drive space savings and therefore a reduction in energy usage and real-estate costs. 

- Effective use of Big Data – This will be instrumental in enabling businesses to consider people, equipment and the operational environment in a more strategic, holistic and predictive way. 

- Creative connected people – Creativity often occurs in random discussions with people who have different experiences. Creating a workplace that is designed for spontaneous meetings is a great way to enhance the creative climate. Relationships between employees are likely to strengthen as new workplace concepts (such as activity based working and campus designs) create new conversations and encourage the exchange of ideas.

- Greater work-life balance – If your focus is on the work getting done, rather than where it gets done, the result is often a better work-life balance for staff.

Read Five principles for creating a successful workplace of the future

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.