Small businesses could benefit from moving their systems to the cloud and allowing their employees the chance to work more convenient hours from remote locations
First it was snow, then the rain and flooding. With that panicked tone that provides Canadians, Scandinavians and just about anyone else with an annual chance to laugh at us, the media descended on our latest bout of "weather chaos" with a predictable list of miserable scenarios. The lost productivity, the cancelled flights and postponed sporting fixtures are a hardy perennial of every newsroom's editorial calendar. It's just the date that moves around a bit.
A pendant to this involves stories about plucky Brits making epic journeys to work. "I am just going outside and may be some time," we chorus, or at least voice words to that effect. And we are indeed gone for some time: usually on pointless missions that chew up vast amounts of time, only to deposit us at desks where we are not necessarily as productive as if we had just stayed at home.
So, at a time when so many of us are classified as knowledge workers and have no real need to be pinned to a desk in an office, why are so many of us still fighting the elements to come in?
For some years now we have had the tools to work from other locations: computer, broadband, phone and some way of connecting to corporate systems. But still a lot of us don't, despite the fact that survey after survey says that, handled appropriately, flexible working is a good thing.
Interestingly, the Department of Work and Pensions' family friendly working hours taskforce in 2009 reported that 65% of employers saw improved recruitment and retention levels from having flexible working policies and 58% of small and medium-sized enterprises saw more productivity. And this was four years ago. Since then, technology and tools have advanced significantly to make mobile working much, much easier while enabling greater savings from reduced office running costs and travel.
But flexible working remains tangled up in myths, and one of the big ones is that it's difficult and costly to implement. In fact, many businesses can quickly create frameworks that would have let them beat the recent snow blizzards, fears of floods and the entirely predictable disruption they bring.
Flexibility can be as simple as re-phasing working hours to avoid peak commute times, thereby restoring productivity and reducing time spent travelling.
Figures show that more than 4.5 million people used the London underground on its busiest day during the Olympics. But the impact on the system was minimised by companies travelling out of normal rush-hour periods because a widely advertised campaign advised local companies to do so.
If SMEs offer their employees flexibility on start and finish times, perhaps with set 'core hours', employees will be able to work more effectively, cutting down on unnecessary travel time and leading to better morale and productivity in their roles.
As highlighted by members of the Anywhere Working Consortium, today's technologies make it easier than ever to work flexibly at an affordable rate. Laptops, tablets and smartphones are everywhere. Wireless networks give us bandwidth when and where we need it. Software is being adapted for the cloud era so all we need is a connection and a password to access corporate systems.
Mobile operator EE now offers 4G in the UK and the same service will soon be offered by other carriers. Wi-fi can be found in trains, coaches and other forms of public transport.
That means that small companies can be flexible about where they work. Teams can work remotely when in transit, on site with clients or partners, from hospitality environments such as hotels, cafes and bars, or drop in co-working places like Club Workspace and 'third spaces', the catch-all term to describe places that aren't home and aren't work. Even pubs and libraries are being adapted to act as hubs for local workers, giving a new lease of life to buildings and taking the weight off our roads and public transport networks.
Although most companies are familiar with VPN connections, it is the cloud which will enable this level of flexibility. The cloud means workers can enjoy access to emails and files anywhere with a reliable internet connection.
Getting set up on the cloud is very straightforward. Once you have selected the right cloud storage provider from the myriad that are available, that company will be able to help you with the roll-out. This means that companies do not have to contain their own IT teams in order to get their cloud off the ground. In fact, the smaller your company is, the easier it is to get yourself up and running. Most suppliers operate on pay-as-you-go and subscription models to help manage the costs.
Of course, there are many jobs remaining where it's not possible to work from any location and there are many reasons why we should all be meeting face-to-face at many times. But really the only barriers to widespread flexible working that remain are the old obdurate ones: culture and prejudice. Let's hope the experience of this past winter takes us one step further to overcoming these.
Scott Dodds is the general manager of marketing and operations for Microsoft UK
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