UK’s new flexible working entitlements: check the hype

Last week the UK brought into effect a change to the rules regarding statutory eligibility to request flexible working. From some of the discussion, you’d think corporate IT was going to be overwhelmed as ninety percent of the workforce suddenly starts working from home!

Computing, for example, has an article with some good discussion (including comments from Ollie Ross at the Corporate IT Forum) but with two major flaws. First, it mostly assumes that flexible working automatically means being home based (it doesn’t); and second, it anticipates huge IT changes for companies in supporting flexible working staff (there won’t be).

Let’s get it into perspective.

First: the regulations are not new. They apply only to staff who care for young dependents (for the majority it remains, as it always was, entirely a matter of company culture and policy). And they don’t entitle staff with these carer responsibilities to have flexible working. They entitle them to request it, and require the employer to consider it. The request can be turned down, but it must be with reasons and there are appeal lines set out.

And second: the numbers are not huge. The new rules extend eligibility to staff who have dependent children older than six and under 17. There are estimated to be 4.5 million of these; and three cheers for them! But six million parents of six-year-olds and under, or of disabled children under 18, were already covered. So for every four people already on this specific “statutory” subset of flexible working there may potentially be another three.

Some industries do have significant numbers of employees in these categories. But the total UK workforce is about 30 million people and many of the new 4.5 million will be already on flexible working, or not working, or will choose not to make a request. It doesn’t feel like there’s a massive change coming. And in any case not all the people covered by either the previous criteria or the expanded eligibility are likely to be professionals requiring the kind of enterprise IT support discussed in the article.

Flexible working and remote working are not the same thing. It may just be a case of adjusting on-site hours. Flexible working, as the UK Government says, describes “any working pattern adapted to suit your needs. It includes things like part-time working, flexitime and homeworking”.

It would be good if this relatively small change causes a change in culture and a general opening-up in some companies’ attitudes. But it ain’t likely. The extended eligbility isn’t of itself likely to generate enough numbers to require wholesale changes to company services and infrastructure.

Many firms already have staff who regularly have to be supported remotely and/or outside “normal” work hours. Consultants regularly operate from client sites, and managers move between multiple company locations perhaps in different countries. Large sales forces are predominantly home based. And people who work either side of their on-site time can be seen (or, too often, heard!) on any commuter train.

Then there’s the issue of trust. This one surfaces with every new technology. In the 1990s, managers worried that company information would leak away by email, and that employees would spend all their time surfing the then-new Web. The controls that were introduced, including use of the X.400 standard, have melted away and email and the Web have become essential business tools. Now repeat that, but for 1990s substitute 1920s and for email and the Web substitute the telephone. Yes, it’s true.

There have always been ways to spend time not working, and there always will be: but why would a company hire people it believes it can’t trust to work? If staff are meeting their objectives then that should normally be enough.

And, yes, security of proprietary or confidential information is a valid concern. But when I used to commute I would regularly see lawyers heading for a nearby Crown Court reading their briefs on the train. Narry a computer in sight; but their clients’ names, addresses and misdemeanours were well open to public gaze. This isn’t a technology issue either, except in so far as technology makes it possible to lose larger quantities of information much more quickly!

The chance and potential impact of a loss can be estimated. The costs and disbenefits of excessive control can be measured, with a little trouble: slower response, potentially lost business, employee evasion of controls perceived as over-intrusive. That’s to say, a risk assessment needs to be done. The mitigation strategies include employee education (staff don’t learn about these issues from setting up a home network) and appropriate technology solutions (such as DRM and highly secure gateways) to reduce the likelihood of the most significant adverse events.

So there’s some good discussion in the Computing article. But the hype, and the confusion of several issues, makes it less valuable than it could be. “On Monday 6 April, an estimated 4.5 million extra requests for flexible working could, theoretically, swamp UK firms“? I don’t think so.

• How to gear up for a surge in remote working, Computing, 2 Apr 2009
• Flexible working rights extended, UK Directgov newsroom, 3 Apr 2009
• Demographic Trends – The U.K. Workforce…..Brewing Risks Eric Seubert, Talent Readiness, 23 Jun 2008
• Flexibility – Resources for New Ways of Working Flexibility is an online journal which has been covering and advocating flexible working since 1993. It looks like a most useful resource