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Flexible working is oft-discussed, but here’s what you can learn from Vodafone’s approach

Kicking off the launch of Corporate Insights, a new interview series in which we hear from senior decision makers at large global firms about how they get the job done, two heads of Vodafone discuss the emergence of flexible working, implementation and what it really means for SMEs.
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Kicking off the launch of Corporate Insights, a new interview series in which we hear from senior decision makers at large global firms about how they get the job done, two heads of Vodafone discuss the emergence of flexible working, implementation and what it really means for SMEs.

Flexible working, or remote working, has generated different views from leaders atop businesses, but there is no denying that the trend is only increasing – at least in terms of discussion, if not adoption.

The pros often cited include a better work-life balance for employees, which in turn results in a more motivated workforce and better engagement for the business.

As for cons, there is some distrust among bosses, who have concerns that workers may take the opportunity to skive off. The fears aren’t totally unfounded as one survey in particular revealed some home workers said they attempt “doing as little as I can get away with”.

So with Corporate Insights, we’re speaking to the leaders of large firms that have been there, done it and got the T-shirt, to provide UK SME leaders with inspiration and knowledge on how they can implement certain practices with lessons from the big businesses.

Vodafone is the first firm we’ve spoken with, in this case to gather where the company stands on the flexible working front. We sat down with head of talent and development Jenni Heyes and head of enterprise services Tony Bailey.

Flexible working insight

Heyes offered her personal thoughts on remote working and said that, done correctly, it can be a great asset to introduce.

“When supported with the right process, structure and technology it has really given people the opportunity to work more effectively and achieve a greater balance in how they manage their time,” she said.

Bailey was in agreement and added: “Best practice approaches are giving employers new ways to meet the needs of a multi-generational workforce and in a way that increases productivity and business performance – whether that is being able to attract the best millennial talent or giving people the ability to support both their work and life commitments well.

“When used effectively it can also transform the way a business operates allowing it to optimise a number of business processes as well as how facilities are used.”

So from a business viewpoint, we wanted to know what Vodafone’s position on the trend is. Bailey explained that working remotely should be developed in line with a business strategy and as part of a flexibility programme.

“From our perspective, flexible working is about creating an environment where people can do their best work in the way that is most productive for the customer and employee, regardless of where or when,” he said.

“We look at flexible working across four key areas – people, process, space and technology. For flexible working to work well, all four elements need to be considered. It also has to be part of the culture and strategy direction of the company, embraced by leadership and all parts of the business.”

Employment trailblazer

Heyes revealed Vodafone has actually had its eye on the working practice for seven years, which would have made it way ahead of its time, given the ongoing conversation to make flexible workplaces the norm.

“Our ‘Better Ways of Working’ programme has driven a cultural change across how we work and developed initiatives that support our multi-generational workforce and our desire to offer excellent customer service,” she said.

“We have combined communication tools, made more efficient use of building space, including removing executive offices and individual desks, to encourage greater collaboration, as well as implementing flexible working hours and locations.”

The idea is that the way of working throughout the business is making the most efficient use of resource and time, generating improved results and practices that are sustainable.

“With our expertise in mobility and connectivity we were able to see the potential for supporting change using new technology innovations and digital services,” she said.

“We started to ease into a loose form of flexible working prior to 2009 by giving employees the technology they needed to be able to work remotely when not in the office. Apart from this, our environment was quite traditional and based largely on fixed desks and hours.”

With the Better Ways of Working scheme rolled out that same year, Vodafone analysed the existing culture and business to see how the operation could become more flexible and agile as a result. And the company dived in head first to assess the outcome.

“Rather than test it in just one department, we decided to adopt flexible working practices across the entire organisation,” Heyes continued. “Maximising the use of office space, changing the organisational culture and assessing what technology is being used all needed to be considered simultaneously in order to make a successful transition.”

Of course, the idea of flexible working can mean different things depending on who you speak with, but for Vodafone it’s a case of delivering people more flexibility in the hours worked, where they work and the environments in which the duties are completed.

“This requires them to have the power, trust and tools they need to do their job in a way that will bring benefit to our customers and to our business teams as well as enhancing their job satisfaction,” Heyes reasoned. She added the practice enforced should be agreed upon and discussed among teams and leadership, calling on collaboration to make decisions as there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

Technology enablers

Bailey said he feels there are numerous reasons why the concept of flexible working has grown, including the rise of SMEs looking to the cloud and mobile.

“UK business productivity has been a hot topic for the past year and there has long been a focus on how businesses can do more with less and achieve growth in what is a changing business climate,” he detailed.

“So more businesses are looking at transformation – what they can do differently or how they can use technology – to improve their ability to respond to domestic and international market opportunities as well as compete in a digital economy.

“Also, as the concept of flexible working gained popularity, the government has also introduced changes to regulation giving employees the right to request flexible working from their employer.

“The impact of mobile and cloud has also driven adoption, with ambitious SMEs able to access the same technology used by large corporates to drive efficiency and enable new levels of service delivery and communication.”

Opening up on the benefits experienced, Heyes believes Better Ways of Working has been a huge boon for Vodafone. “We have reduced our real estate by 30 per cent and saved millions on property, energy and travel costs. Additionally, creating a collaborative culture has encouraged more employee engagement across different departments, ages and disciplines,” she said.

Externally, clients have also benefitted from the programme as it means staff are contactable even when they’re not physically in the office.

Bailey offered some data from research carried out among 8,000 employees in ten countries and drew feedback from SMEs, public organisations and multinational corporations. It found in the UK, 78 per cent of firms with flexible working policies reported an increase in productivity, 57 per cent pointed to higher employee retention and 50 per cent cited improved profits.

While it sounds seamless, Heyes said there were some challenges around asking employees to rethink the way they work. Similarly, leaders had to understand they wouldn’t always physically have eyes on the team.

“To tackle this challenge, we implemented policies which applied to the entire organisation, for all employees, including the CEO. Through clear communication and training sessions, we ensured that everyone was aware of the changes and how they are implemented,” she said.

“Flexible working is definitely an approach which requires trust. Crucially, we measure by results and not by how long an employee’s coat hangs in the office. Business leaders need to trust that their employees will continue to meet their objectives and required outputs.”

Bailey explained that the Better Ways of Working philosophy is also shared with customers on a regular basis.

“Over the past four years we have engaged with more than 500 businesses to help them achieve better ways of working, using our ‘borderless working’ methodology, and advised them on how best to design and implement new approaches. It has been very rewarding to see successful implementations across a range of very different organisations,” he said.

“We recognise that flexible working as a management practice is still fairly new, so earlier this year we created a guide to flexible working, which is a practical resource for helping businesses make flexible working a reality.”

For big and for small

The key, according to Bailey, is encouraging clients to think of it as a business development and performance opportunity. He was keen to highlight that SMEs can absolutely introduce flexible working, insisting it isn’t just the preserve of corporates.

“Different types of organisations will have different objectives and different desired results when it comes to flexible working. The most important thing is to know what you want to get out of flexible working, whether it is a way to attract and retain employees, work more collaboratively as an overall business, or make better use of physical space,” he said.

“When it comes to transforming a business culture and adopting new ways of working, SMEs are at an advantage due to their size and so will find they are equipped to make these changes more quickly. Also, SMEs now have access to a new wave of technology innovation that can help them remove borders that have previously restricted growth and development.”

Closing on something SMEs should bear in mind, he added: “We learnt very quickly that in order for flexible working to be successful long term, it needs to be an iterative process.

“Business leaders need to constantly review the situation and be willing to evolve the process as the needs and requirements of the business, their employees and their customers grow and change.

“At Vodafone, we continue to review and develop our Better Ways of Working programme as it supports our business success and ultimately our customers and employees.”

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About Author

Zen Terrelonge

Zen Terrelonge is the deputy editor of Real Business, specialising in media, innovation, technology and the digital sector. A media professional with eight years worth of experience he has worked for both startup and established publications.

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