The Flexible Worker

We are in the throes of a working revolution that is changing the way organisations function, the way people live, and the way we relate to our environment. Increasingly, people aren’t going to work; work is coming to them.

Technology, of course, has been the catalyst. When it is possible to compare ideas and exchange documents electronically, perform work remotely and stay in touch by mobile telephone, there is no longer the same need to gather in one place. The old hierarchies are breaking down, and the old workplace routines are no longer relevant.

More and more people are choosing to work away from the traditional office -“ for example, in the U.S. around 24 million today work from home, 16 per cent of total employment. The last published figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the number of homeworkers rising from 19.8M to 20.7M from 2001 to 2004, a 5 percent increase. Even more revealing is the fact that 99 percent of these people are teleworkers -“ those who use computers and telecommunications to work.

Very few people actually want to work from home all the time. For obvious reasons, it suits young mothers, but others feel isolated at home, lacking stimulation or else competing with their families for space and attention. Although much has been written about the rise of homeworking -“ and at Regus we are acutely aware that many of our 500,000 customers work from home at least part of the time -“ it is the new worker’s flexibility that is most striking. Certainly, we work from home; but we also work on the move. In fact people can work just about anywhere, and this is what is changing the way we organise our lives.

What makes this such an unstoppable trend is that it is at the heart of entrepreneurial activity all over the world. We have seen how the service sector has eclipsed traditional industry in just a few decades. Now we are seeing how the spread of flexible working is changing the nature of entrepreneurship, which powers the new economy and helps us decide how we want to live. It is no coincidence that flexible workers are far more environmentally conscious than their predecessors, and conduct their lives in much more sustainable ways, with less commuting, less pollution and more recycling of resources that are available closer to home.

Amazingly, it is now exactly a decade since Daniel Pink, former speech writer to Al Gore, wrote his book Free Agent Nation, in which he contrasted the emerging lifestyle of the flexible worker with that of the traditional ‘organisation man’ of the late 20th century. Pink was one of the first to consider the ways that such lone wolves would have to be supported in order to link up with business and society -“ meeting-places and networks both physical and virtual.

But whereas Pink was concentrating on self-employed people, today’s flexible worker is just as likely to be employed, albeit in a way that is very different from the traditional employer/employee relationship. The difference today is that the power belongs not with the organisation or employer, but with the flexible workers themselves.

Today’s enlightened employers recognise this power shift, and are ready to change their organisational models so that they can attract the best and brightest people to work for them. IBM allow nearly 40 per cent of their workforce to work from home if they want to and KPMG offer the same option to about a third of their 5,000 workers in the UK.

One of flexible working’s greatest success stories is the US airline JetBlue which employs 1000 people working from home or on the move, taking more than 10 million calls a year. Since moving away from call centers, management noticed a 25 percent increase in productivity with only a 4 percent employee turnover. Stephen Loynd of the IBC estimates that the cost to train someone to work in a call center is $31, compared with $21 to train them to work from home.

Women, not surprisingly, have already benefited enormously from the rise of flexible working, and will make their presence increasingly felt. At Regus, we undertook a detailed study just a month ago which showed that nearly half the global business population was expecting to hire mothers to work part-time over the next two years. In India, no fewer than 64 percent of employers expect to hire mothers returning to work after the birth of children.

Flexible working doesn’t only favour women. It favours all those who might find it difficult to report to a certain place of work five days a week -“many of whom have developed advanced skills in tele-working that they have only recently been able to deploy to full effect. The new workforce is increasingly diverse, and all the better for it.

As I have already intimated, flexible working, or working from home, is not necessarily easy. It may be more convenient, but it may also be tedious, repetitive and alienating. There are plenty of successful entrepreneurs who will readily confess to having suffered from a form of log-cabin madness as they wrestled with their business models, plans and great ideas from the solitude of their garden sheds.

Increasingly, employers, planners and governments alike are exploring not only the possibilities of electronic social networking but also of meeting-places, coffee-shops and business hubs, places that can replicate the corridor, the water-cooler and the office pub where people traditionally meet to share ideas, complain, sympathise and get to know each other. We may be searching for the modern equivalent of the Roman forum, and this is an area where Regus is doing pioneering work in setting up business hubs in formerly residential areas.

There are other pressing issues for policy-makers, such as the growing need to design and build homes for work as well as accommodation. The middle classes can afford to redesign their living spaces, but it is in areas of high unemployment where people most need to find opportunities to work from home. Yet some landlords still use tenancy agreements that specifically bar use of the property for business purposes.

In these and many other ways, flexible working is proving to be increasingly popular, sustainable, desirable, and inevitable. In subsequent articles, I look forward to exploring related issues such as working hours, travel and time, the management of the new workforce, collaboration, carbon footprints, work and reward, the redesign of homes and the development of public policy.

Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat Penguin Books: London, 2006 p. 37

Guillermo Rotman is the CEO at The Regus Group Americas and oversees all aspects of The Regus Group in the United States, Canada and Latin America.