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Implementing a flexible working project 

This is the fourth and final in our series of Flexibility articles on how to implement a successful flexible working project.

In this article we cover the issues around project organisation and management, ranging from building the business case through to assembling a team, preparing a project plan and ensuring the project actually delivers the expected benefits.



 

 

4. Organisation and management

Interest in flexible working has been established, feasibility studies have been carried out and management and staff are attracted by the benefits.  Now begins the hard work!

Contents:

Building the business case:

A typical scenario is that a human resources, facility or technology manager has chosen to, or been tasked with, investigating the potential of flexible working, hot-desking, home-working, satellite offices or some other change to working practices that could benefit the organisation.

Following investigation, which could involve studying Flexibility resources and may include a feasibility study, the next stage is to "sell" a project to senior management. Put simply, selling involves justifying the investments in terms of the expected benefits.

However, as with most business investment, the costs come first and the risks and benefits later. Few senior management teams will be happy to commit to an investment unless a thorough risk and payback analysis has been undertaken. Also they will normally want to monitor progress and, if appropriate, be able to terminate and reverse the project if results are not being delivered.

Some of the costs and benefits associated with a project to introduce new ways of working are summarised in the following table. All situations are different and this should be used only for guidance; in particular there may be important operational areas of cost or benefit not covered.

  Area Capital Ongoing
Project management: Project team, consultancy, etc. Investment  
Facilities: Office accommodation Investment Reduction
Home working Investment Increase
Third-party facilities  

Increase

Technology: Remote access infrastructure

Investment

 
Applications development Investment  
Office technology   Reduction
Home working Investment Increase
Mobile working Investment Increase
Human resources: Staffing levels   Reduction
Training Investment  

In essence, investments must be made in facilities, technology, training and the project itself and increased ongoing costs incurred in supporting home and mobile working. In return, savings will result from smaller offices and lower staffing levels for the same level of output. Other benefits, not illustrated in the table, may result from better customer service, environmental and social gains.

An illustration:

The following example is taken from a leading consumer products company that merged with its main competitor. The decision was taken to integrate all staff into a single operation, based in one of the existing offices. The other office was sold for development.

Around 350 staff were required to work from an office that was already full to capacity with 220. A space audit showed low desk utilisation and other data, including a staff survey, suggested substantial business benefits from more flexible working practices.

The initial justification for the project was based on space savings alone:

  • Disposed of redundant building, saving office facility and desktop technology charge of 6,800 per employee, i.e. 884,000 per year

  • Invested in facilities and technology to allow 200 staff to work anywhere and anytime at an annual cost of 3,500 each, i.e. 700,000 per year

  • Invested 140,000 in IT and telecommunications infrastructure and applications

  • Invested 180,000 in remodelling the office: new furniture, new meeting rooms, improved shared space

  • Invested 210,000 in project management, consultancy and training costs.

An up-front investment of 530,000 resulted in net facility cost savings of 184,000 per year, i.e. a payback of just under 3 years.

Whilst this was considered adequate to justify the investment, the greater benefits resulted from productivity and motivational improvements from the managers and professional sales and marketing personnel. With the facility to work flexibly, including from home, staff are spending more time on productive work and less time travelling and undertaking administrative activities. A 10% increase in sales per head has been attributed to the project, equivalent to an annual profit increase of around 500,000.

Finally, it is too early to tell the impact on staff turnover, but initial indications are that the company has become the employer of choice in its industry.

The project team:

As has been stressed throughout this series, the greatest benefits are only possible by bringing human resources, facilities and technology managers together around a common agenda of business performance improvement through new ways of working.

In our experience, the most successful projects have set up dedicated, autonomous and multi-disciplinary teams under a project leader reporting directly to a chief executive or other senior business manager.  In this way the entire team can become totally focused on the project rather than representing their own disciplines.  Also there is often much to be gained by specialists learning about and gaining skills in other specialisms.

The project plan:

Needless to say, the project should be established and managed according to best project management practice, with clear terms of reference, objectives, milestones, success criteria, reporting structures, budgets, contingency plans and so on.

It is rare for an innovation and change programme not to attract dissenters - often people set in their ways or scared of change.  It is therefore vital that the project communicates effectively, not only to its senior management sponsors but also with the organisation at large.

Issues specific to certain aspects of the project are covered in separate tutorials:

There are though, from experience, a number of general points helpful to the establishment of a successful project:

1. Create a high level steering group of stakeholders:

These can include senior business managers and department heads; their participation in a steering group meeting, say, once per month will both encourage buy-in and help deal with issues before they escalate.

2. Project intranet:

As has been stressed throughout, any project that seeks to change aspects of people's lives will attract some degree of suspicion and even hostility.  There is normally no reason not to share information with staff at all levels and invite their participation in the project, and an intranet is both a an effective tool for this and helps to reinforce the benefits of paper-free working.

3. Project area:

Bringing the project team together and, from an early stage, practicing what they preach, can help give the project visibility.  As the work develops, the project area could be used for lunchtime seminars, vendor demonstrations (furniture, technology, etc.) and drop-in sessions.  As decisions are taken, for example on colour schemes and furniture, staff can be invited to register their views.

4. Name the project:

The "flexible working project" or some other such designation can be a mouthful and might be too descriptive if the project broadens its remit to address other issues.  Adopting a distinctive and non-descriptive project name helps avoid this and creates a branding for the project that can be used internally and externally.

5. Measurement and consultation:

It is important to establish a baseline, against which the benefits and costs of the project can be measured.  Collecting information on space utilisation, facility and technology costs, staff turnover, recruitment and training costs, etc. is vital.  Also consulting with staff, at all levels, for example using the intranet consultation tool described in chapter 5, can both collect useful information and help people feel included.  Measurement and consultation should continue at stages throughout the project.

6. Learn from others:

An expanding range of case studies is available from vendors, journals, conferences and the worldwide web (including Flexibility).  Also many organisations that have implemented flexible working programmes are interested in sharing their experiences and hosting visits.  Learning from the successes and mistakes of others can reduce time and risk and help ensure a "right first time" solution.

7. Quick wins:

Quick wins are usually solutions to known problems that can help give the project credibility and support; it is surprising how often simply bringing together the human resources, facilities and technology people can identify simple solutions to problems that have irritated staff for years.  Also the staff survey may highlight an issue, the resolution of which may have an positive impact way beyond its cost.

8. Pilots:

These can address both individual aspects of the project: office layout and practices, paper-free processes, home-working, flexitime, etc.  Also, usually at a later stage, entire teams or departments can pilot a full, integrated solution prior to roll-out throughout the organisation.  The important point is that most aspects of new ways of working can be piloted and the results from this can help reduce risk, shape solutions and build staff support.  There is generally no reason to jump directly to a solution without piloting.

Realising the benefits:

We end with a warning: it is easy call a halt after the new offices are built and the technology upgraded.  Employees will be happy with their new working environment and tools and the quality of the shared team facilities will help dispel any concerns over hot-desking.

Yet the full range of benefits only arises as business processes, working practices, management style and the organisation itself change in response to the opportunities of the information age.

In fact, as technology continues to improve, there will not be a time when the project can be considered complete.  The successful organisations of the future will learn to innovate continuously, not only in their products and services but also in their working environments, processes and practices.

 

This concludes our series of articles on implementing a flexible working project

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