More Irish employees than ever want to avail of flexible working conditions. They don't always get the chance, however.
Some employers talk the talk, but aren’t so keen on introducing measures to enable staff to work outside of the office.
A misplaced fear that employees are sitting around in their underwear at home watching Jeremy Kyle instead of working feverishly to finish that all-important report has led many companies to be cautious about introducing flexible working arrangements for staff.
The trouble is that while employers are sitting on the fence, more workers are seeking increased flexibility to have a better work/life balance.
In theory, at least, better broadband access, improved Wi-Fi availability and cheaper laptops and tablets mean employees should be able to work well wherever they are.
A study by Citrix Ireland last year found, however, that 73 per cent of Irish businesses did not support a flexible or mobile working culture, with many respondents citing a loss of control as their biggest fear associated with it.
A more recent survey from Ricoh suggests that even those companies that do support flexible working are doing so in a half-hearted way.
The findings have led Gary Hopwood, general manager for Ricoh Ireland, to suggest that the Government should consider implementing flexible working directives and legislation along the lines of those seen in the UK, Australia and the US, to ensure that staff can truly avail of the practice.
According to the study of more than 1,000 full-time employees in Ireland and Britain, 75 per cent of survey respondents said they felt less productive working away from the office.
The research shows employees embracing mobile working, with 61 per cent saying they sometimes worked from home.
But a further 22 per cent said they wanted to work from home, but didn’t have the right technology, while nearly half of those who already do said not having the right equipment hampered their productivity.
Furthermore, some 54 per cent of those working from home said that they ended up wasting between one and three hours a week dealing with IT problems.
Working in transit or in satellite offices was less popular than being at home with only 40 per cent of respondents doing so, although again, more said they would work in those locations if they had access to better equipment.
“Given the recent focus on mobilising workforces, we were taken aback by some of these findings,” said Hopwood.
He believes that a key problem is the failure of companies to invest in the appropriate technology to enable staff to work more productively outside of the office environment.
He cites the importance of introducing virtual profiles that allow access to a firm’s IT network from any device and says online collaboration tools, which enable staff to work together no matter where they are, are essential.
Video conferencing and tablets to replace paper documents were among other technologies that should be introduced, he said.
Hopwood believes that companies needn’t spend a fortune on technology to turn things around. Instead, he says increased spending tied to policy changes that make it easier for staff to do their job properly is necessary.
It’s hardly surprising to hear the head of a technology-focused firm calling on organisations to invest more in tech. But Hopwood goes one step further by calling for action to be taken to compel companies to take flexible working more seriously.
He believes the Government needs to follow the lead of the UK, which recently introduced measures to make it possible for all employees – rather than just parents and employees with other caring duties – to request the right to flexible working.
The US and Australia also have similar rules in place, but in Ireland, flexible working arrangements are generally at the discretion of individual employers and are not governed by specific legislation.
Hopwood argues that introducing specific measures around this would force organisations to embrace flexible working, which if introduced would benefit them as much as their employees.
“There’s a culture that emanated in Silicon Valley many years ago that has come over to Europe through big tech companies such as Google and Facebook of measuring performance by output rather than through hours worked. Companies here need to start acting thinking in that way as well,” he said.
“I think it’s necessary to force employers’ hands on flexible working. Many of them don’t recognise the benefits of it because they are too busy being afraid of what employees are up too if they aren’t in the office.
“Once they see the benefits, not just in terms of increased productivity, but also in terms of money to be saved from heating, lighting and real estate, then companies often get behind it, but many won’t take the necessary steps involved to make it a success because they don’t trust their staff,” he added.
One man who's not surprised by the Ricoh survey findings is Michael McDonnell, managing director at CIPD Ireland, a professional body for HR and people development.
However, he suggests that rather than a lack of access to technology, the perceived lack of productivity among employees working outside the office may be linked to a fear of not being visible to employers.
“Most businesses still manage their work according to the principles of scientific management, which was devised over 100 years ago to enable the Model T -Ford to be assembled by a line of workers who were given strict instructions on how to perform their tasks.
“This principle of managing inputs has prevailed up to the present day where the subliminal thinking is if you’re not present, you’re not productive. It is against such a background that people – even on a subconscious level – feel they would be more productive if they were in the office,” he said.
McDonnell isn’t sure whether legislation is the solution to the issue, although he does agree that introducing new ways to measure performance would help.
“Most organisations say they are open and committed to flexible working, but many employees still believe that presenteeism and the capacity to demonstrate long hours of work are necessary if you are to progress in your career.
“Simply legislating for flexible working will have minimal impact because what is needed is a change of mindset. We need a theory and techniques to underpin and give credibility to flexible working in the same way that scientific management facilitated mass production,” he said.
The employers’ body Ibec is also unsure of the need to legislate.
"In terms of legislation I believe there are already sufficient regulations surrounding flexible working, such as the Code of Practice on Access to Part-Time Working," said Maeve McElwee, the group's head of HR.
McElwee is also dismissive of the suggestion that employers in Ireland aren’t keen on flexible working arrangements for staff.
“I think employers are relatively open to the idea of flexible working. At senior levels in most organisations, they tend to have a reasonable enough view of it where it is practical for the business, which is always the key issue.
“Where it is, I think most companies would be in favour of it,” she said.