Flexibilty Inc.

Thursday, November 1, 2007 - 11:06

As workers request more flexibility in work practice, balancing greater staff autonomy and operational soundness will be a crucial issue for managers to address. By Bina Brown

Taking delivery of new and discounted personal information managers (PIMs) made available through a special employer offer, excited bank staff at one of the big four immediately set about synchronising them with their desktop computers.

However, as is common practice with financial institutions, computer security was set up in such a way that no new software could be installed. As a result, the software required to integrate the PIMs with a computer couldn't be loaded and that meant that the device couldn't be used as an offline tool for email, contact and task management; exactly what most of the people buying it wanted to use it for.

Slowly, almost every desktop in the building was frozen. The IT department went into overdrive. The bank's solution was to ban most of its staff from installing their own software or linking IT devices into office computers. So, the only people left carrying the coveted BlackBerry PIM, were management.

Greater flexibility

Finding a balance between giving more staff greater autonomy – and protecting the security of an organisation – will be a crucial issue for managers as increasing numbers of employees seek greater flexibility, including working part time, says Brian Prentice, Research Director, Emerging Trends and Technologies at researcher Gartner. And, as far as technology is concerned, there has to be a better IT solution than just saying no to something, he says.

"As information technology is woven into the fabric of people's lives and traditional work/home demarcations are rendered obsolete, digital free agency will gain currency: a user-driven practice of blending professional and personal computing requirements into a single approach," says Prentice.

Prentice predicts that by 2015 there will be significant numbers of people looking for a better work/life balance as they juggle personal, family and community responsibilities. These people will have different demands than the large numbers of people who are already job sharing or working part time in order to juggle family commitments.

The 40-hour work week will continue to come under pressure, as will the other three pillars of the traditional work accord: the living wage, long-term relationships with loyal employers, and government- or company-provided pensions, Prentice says.

What will be needed is an additional work structure. What Prentice suggests is the 20-hour job description; this will appeal to the highly skilled in key demographics including working-age mothers, retiring baby boomers and generation X workers. "When these people have marketable skills, employers will find it hard to ignore their requests for more flexibility," says Prentice. And an important part of that flexibility will be the use of mobile digital devices.

Of course, many organisations have been addressing issues of work/life balance and knowledge management. Professor Mark Wooden, Deputy Director of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, and Director of the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey (HILDA), says about 30 per cent of Australians already work part-time. "We have had huge growth in part time workers driven largely by working mothers," he says.

IT giant IBM adopted the mantra "one size fits many" for its flexible workplace policies more than a decade ago. In addition to its six global flexible working options there are some Australia-centric programs designed to keep its employees happy and focused.

IBM's Diversity Program Manager for Australia and New Zealand, Nicole Fenech, says critical to its flexible options is its secure network that allows staff to log in from almost anywhere in the world safely.

Fenech says one of the most important things on its intranet are the knowledge sharing, education and online learning that employees require to perform current and future roles within the organisation.

"We can webcast, blog and learn irrespective of where or how we choose to do our job," says Fenech.

Globally, IBM employees can make arrangements for such things as a compressed/flexible work week by, say, compressing their 40 hours into four days rather than five; an individualised work schedule, where an employee can vary their times of work on a case-by-case basis; leave of absence programs, where someone can take unpaid leave for whatever purpose they want; mobile/telecommuting where, with the help of the IT department, they can work wherever they like; and a part-time or reduced work schedule, where someone works less than the assigned hours in a week. Within this category there is a rise in job-share arrangements and work at home, where someone spends more than 80 per cent of their time at home.

In addition, Australia-based IBM workers have the option of paid parental leave to the primary and secondary caregiver; self-funded leave where they can purchase extra weeks off a year; and a floating cultural holiday. Importantly, the IBM working options are available to every employee.

"From the start we have not wanted to restrict the policy to any demographic," says Fenech.

As far as IT goes, it has been a bit of a no-brainer for IBM, with most of its 10,000 staff in Australia able to synchronise their personal communications devices with IBM's, says Fenech. That said, only its senior management have access to the Blackberry.

Part-time careers

According to the Melbourne Institute's Wooden, where there is a lot more work to be done is in the creation of part-time jobs that generate career trails, particularly for women, and the employment of older workers.

"At the end of the day not too many organisations are going to be too comfortable with creating
part-time jobs that are career jobs," says Wooden.

Wooden says business is predisposed not to employ older people and would often opt for non-employment rather than appoint someone who has "retired" but who then decides to return to the workforce part time.

"There is a distinct reluctance to hire older people, not a reluctance to keep them on," he says.

Prentice says many more organisations must offer flexible working options if they want to retain staff.

"Organisations will be better able to attract highly skilled staff (where there is a skill shortage) when IT systems allow for a more flexible approach to balancing personal and professional responsibilities," he explains.

Prentice says the "20-hour-per-week job description" will be a role that can be successfully accomplished in half the normal time but not necessarily for half the pay, adding that it will also be a simpler way for management to address a growing problem than job sharing.

Management headaches often associated with job sharing – including how to manage hand-off points, complications with process ownership, confusion on recognition and remuneration – won't be an issue.

The 20-hour-per-week job description will start with selective roles in those industries facing skill crises. "It will not be a draconian measure to halve the working hours of all employees but rather a way to increase the organisation's ability to hire people into fully participatory roles," says Prentice.

"As this grows in popularity, the concept of part-time work as being something less than a full-time role will disappear. In its place will emerge less-time work: a fully functional and recognised role within the organisation designed to appeal to people with important non-professional commitments."

Prentice says the primary benefit of supporting 20-hour-per-week jobs will be in the ability of an organisation to attract and retain skilled workers.
"For CIOs who are prepared to see the glass as half full, these trends will create a significant opportunity to address broader consumerisation trends [within the IT sector] in a meaningful way to the business," he says.

One of the first steps for CIOs will be the identification of skill shortages. "CIOs must work with senior business managers and human resource executives to understand their organisation's exposure to skill shortages in non-IT-related knowledge work," explains Prentice. "This discussion should encompass both the nature of the role and its impact on business processes."

Then there is the plan for free agents – people no longer interested in long-term working relationships – and the preparation for digital free agency.

"Work-case scenarios should be developed and presented to management as a proactive IT-driven policy change in support of long-term business objectives. Management must realise that the way in which IT systems support work/life balance will become an important factor in the organisation's ability to attract and retain highly skilled free agents," says Prentice.

Prentice says the work that is done to support digital free agency can form a baseline set of governance policies to manage rising user expectations driven by the consumerisation of IT.

"CIOs must see digital free agency as an opportunity to establish business-related rules that address the extent to which IT systems should be controlled versus open and autonomous ones," he says.