Gone are the days when employees had to be seen sitting at their desks from 9am to 5pm to be productive. Increasing home broadband speeds, coupled with the proliferation of smart devices that can be used anywhere over a 4G data network, mean that mobile working is now commonplace.
At the same time, a growing number of us are demanding more flexible working to fit around changing lifestyles, so in the office some of the time but also elsewhere, such as at home or from a coffee shop or park.
It is what we were promised 10 years ago, at the dawn of the mobile revolution. But is everyone on board? And are we reaping the benefits we expected?
Not entirely, it seems.
The open office was widely hoped to be the cheaper, more collaborative future of working but is now recognised as a noisy, distracting and unstable environment for most staff.
According to certain futurologists, this environment was destined to be replaced by dispersed teams working wherever they pleased. But we have seen that the use of remote staff is far from perfect, with some sources suggesting that two out of three managers see their teams fail when deployed outside a traditional group environment.
Is mobile working going anywhere?
At this point it is important to distinguish two ideas about mobile working. The first concerns the ability to work from anywhere, which is largely about the technology and the needs of the employer to become more efficient – such as smart devices replacing pen and paper in the NHS.
The second is about working flexibly, which is largely driven by the employee and focuses less on where you are working and more on why you are not in the office itself. This way of working is driven by fitting employment around changing lifestyles, in the collaboration of international teams and partner organisations, and in the continued presence of older people in the workforce. Technology here is an enabler but the story itself is driven by societal trends.
And these trends are significant. According to the recent Ageing Society Grand Challenge report from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the need for flexible working is essential to meet the demands of an increasing number of older workers.
More than three in four (78pc) of the 12,000 people aged 50 and over surveyed by the BEIS said that more flexible working hours should be introduced to accommodate older workers, while 73pc of respondents said that offering part-time roles would make workplaces more welcoming for them.
Patrick Thomson, senior programme manager at the Centre for Ageing Better, says: “Flexible working is important for workers of all ages and is a key component of an age-friendly and inclusive workplace.”
But inclusivity is just one factor behind the growth of flexible working, and only a part of the wider performance benefits that come from allowing staff to apply themselves where and when suits them best. “To remain productive and competitive, employers need a diverse workforce of skilled, engaged and motivated people,” says Jane Gratton, head of business environment and skills policy at the British Chambers of Commerce.
“That’s why more and more businesses now have flexible working policies and take action to remove barriers to career progression for all employees.”
The future of flexible working
The Government’s research is backed up by employee benefits provider Unum. Its Future Workforce report finds that flexible working is important to 77pc of employees across a number of sectors and company sizes.
For example, younger workers are increasingly looking for a portfolio career with multiple part-time jobs, while older workers often have to look after children and elderly relatives. “Employees are increasingly juggling work commitments with busy and demanding home lives,” writes Peter O’Donnell, chief executive of Unum, in the report’s introduction.
And flexible working is not only a benefit to employees. It can also help employers to recruit the best staff. According to a survey by telecoms specialist TeleWare, a quarter of employees have turned down a job in the past because the employer has not offered flexible working conditions.
“Many businesses are falling at the first hurdle in attracting staff by not providing attractive, flexible working options,” says Steve Haworth, TeleWare chief executive.
Indeed, in the UK there exists a legal right to allow flexible working in most roles. Yet despite this, and the widespread technology that can enable a more mobile workforce, fewer than three in 10 (29pc) UK employees currently work for companies that operate flexible working schemes for all.
Strategy, technology and design
Despite the lack of flexible approaches so far, many businesses are beginning to adapt to this new “anywhere office” environment through new workplace initiatives and policies, and the increasingly widespread adoption of highly capable personal mobile devices.
For example, insurance company Aviva has a workforce of 16,000 UK employees, one third of whom are over 50. It actively screens job adverts for age bias and offers flexible working for all staff from their first day, ensuring that all potential recruits are offered a fair playing field for most roles.
Aviva also recently won a Timewise award for flexible working with the most senior job share in the City – two of its directors. Of course, such approaches only work if staff are afforded the technology needed to participate seamlessly with those logging in back at base.
Many companies have also introduced new office designs that reflect flexible ways of working. This includes spacious meeting areas and hotspots to encourage collaboration between employees. Some also offer hot-desking facilities where employees effectively share desks with one another depending on the time of day or day of the week.
WeWork, a shared-workspace business, has grown significantly in London to accommodate businesses looking both for co-working areas with other like-minded companies – thereby exploiting the potential for community cross-pollination – and those simply looking for space they can scale up or down at relatively short notice compared with long-term rentals.
Underpinning these new ways of working are advances in technology. These are driven in part by employees who expect the technology in the office to match that in their pocket. While in the past decade there has been some corporate reticence about the risks of BYOD (bring your own device), security concerns have largely been allayed, allowing companies to keep pace with technology trends and capabilities without necessarily laying out on hardware themselves.
Inevitably, the next few years will bring the introduction of even more smart-office technologies seamlessly connecting individuals outside the office with teams in-house and each other. Web conferencing technologies are increasingly commonplace, as are smart locks that allow individuals to get into the office using a fingerprint or mobile phone any time of day or night, and let employers see who is clocking in and out.
This warping of both place and time has lead to the notion that we are all moving towards a world of Martini working: “Any time, any place, anywhere.”
But there is a word of warning, as with all Martinis, about excess. With mobile working inevitably blurring the boundaries between work and leisure, it is important that employees and employers manage their work accordingly.
As Mr O’Donnell writes: “Technology is a double-edged sword, making our day-to-day tasks quicker and simpler, but ensuring our leisure time is eroded by business connectivity.”