Case Studies on Flexible Work:
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Miles better

Hertfordshire County Council Trading Standards

The Trading Standards department of Hertfordshire County Council has made major strides in flexible working, to the great benefit of both the individuals and the Council. Previously bursting at the seams in two buildings, which were also difficult to cable for IT, they now occupy a single building of almost the same size, 6000 sq ft. But what a transformation. It is a roomy, well laid out office with two meeting rooms, a meeting table, a soft seat meeting area, several libraries and a kitchen.

Part of the secret in achieving this transformation in the same space is that there are only 42 desks for the 65+ staff. Not only that, but the flexibility of the arrangements allowed the accommodation of additional staff from Libraries and Records (arising from a change in responsibilities) with little disruption and no new desks. The six office-based staff, such as call centre and support staff, still have their own desks. The Trading Standards Officers share team areas of four desks, the teams being up to ten strong. When more than four are in, other under-used team areas or desks where office-based staff are out are used.

Saving journeys

This scheme has been running for two years now and has become the norm, with most of the initial issues long forgotten. One of the original motivations for the scheme was the Council’s TravelWise scheme. In-work travel time has reduced by a healthy 10%, with the in-work miles (reimbursed) reduced by 9,000, representing between 5-8% reduction. Personal miles have also reduced, with staff who used to be based on the office on the other side of the County reporting personal savings despite their increased distance from the office.

Staff who live near the new office tend to be in more (2-3 days a week) than those who are distant (1 day a week). Where previously staff used to start and finish in the office, all peripatetic staff tend to group appointments and go from and return direct to home. It took time for everyone to realise that, providing staff are accessible, they don’t need to be present. Staff also found that their biggest fear of being alone is not really a problem now they have experience of working this way.

Mutual benefit

There were struggles in the first instance to realise that the benefits of the scheme were mutual. Initially many saw it as a Council attempt to save money and increase productivity without giving them anything. Indeed, one member of the staff simply couldn’t accept it, and left to join a council that still works traditionally, despite a greatly increased commute. Everyone else realises the benefits they gain personally, such as reduced time and money on commuting and increased flexibility with personal time.

Managers had problems with the flexibility, but once they were allowed to use it and saw they could benefit in the same way, it made a heck of a difference. Backup and administration are more effective, partly because of the move to a single office. Staff tend to do more for themselves, but bring things in for admin in batches. This makes the admin workload much more variable. Using the concept of a ‘typist of the week’, this has eased, and the admin staff can also work at home if they wish. Typically the typist of the week will spend a day at home with a portable PC if the typing load is sufficient.

Good service

Staff certainly do less unnecessary admin in the office and are more focussed on valuable face to face time. There are now fewer staff doing the same number of visits.

Business ‘customers’ don’t notice a difference, apart from calls being returned earlier, partly because messages and post are better organised for access by support staff rather than waiting for people to come in to the office.

Consumer ‘customers’ find it no different. They still call local numbers, which are routed to the call centre. Occasionally they say, "I’m only just round the corner, so I’ll pop in and show you" to which the call centre replies "Well, actually you’re talking to someone in St Albans!".

Solving real issues

More work is done at home. Initially this was a problem for some staff whose home circumstances made this difficult. The advent of the Council Oases scheme has helped to overcome this problem, allowing them to drop in to a local centre having access to both Council networks (telephone and IT) to work. The Oases are also used for convenience when colleagues want to meet.

There was concern at the start of the scheme that less experienced staff would not be able to check things informally with colleagues. This is also becoming a non-issue. Managers are available on mobile phones. The administration is slick. Team meetings are held once a month. Staff use mobiles for contactability, but tend to use charge cards where possible for making calls. A special connection between the mobile operator’s network and the council IT network means low tariffs for connecting to the IT network via mobiles, which gives access both to electronic mail and the trading standards databases. Portable faxes are available where people need them for working at home.

Benefits

The main messages from this scheme are that the benefits on both sides are real, and that although initially there are always going to be teething problems, these will be overcome with experience. This scheme is cost neutral, with improvements in customer service, productivity, personal life and administration, and with a reduction in both personal and in-work travel.

Hertfordshire County Council can be contacted via their web site at www.hertscc.gov.uk

 

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