Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Time on the road could be time spent with you

It's good to see the Trades Union Congress (TUC) here in the UK stepping up their support for flexible working.

As part of their support for 'Commute Smart Week', the TUC have published an analysis of government figures on commuting, and found that people working full-time spend on average 219 hours per year commuting.  That's equivalent to an extra 5 working weeks per year.

They also found that women commute less, and people with longer journeys generally have higher-paid jobs. (Details in our Flexibility article)

It may be stating the obvious - but the point is what to do about it

There is nothing new in these findings, of course.  Women overall commute less because part-time work is much more common amongst women.  Neither women nor men will travel so far for part-time work, as it generally pays less.  So it's not really to do with gender directly. 

The two findings reflect the same thing - people will travel further for more money.  It's the cost/reward trade-off that we all make when we look at where to work in relation to where to live.
One of the things we've always found in our smart working surveys in companies is that people with longer journeys are
  1. already more likely to work from home when they can, and
  2. are more likely to want to work from home or change their time of travelling
... than those who live closer to work.  Kind of logical, isn't it?

This also means that those who are the first to start working from home are usually managers and professionals.  It's partly because they can, but also because they have the biggest incentive in terms of savings - savings of both time and money.

All those hours spent commuting - probably alone in the car, or on public transport in the company of strangers - can now be spent in a more rewarding way.  Either in person with family, or virtually interacting with work and work colleagues.  Or dividing the time between the two.

And with fuel prices as they are, it's certainly time for companies and  the government to do everything in their power to enable flexible working for all.

Some challenges here for the Unions

The TUC is taking the right approach here, calling for more flexible working.  But there are challenges for them too.

Unions represent less than a quarter of the workforce - and mostly those on lower pay, mostly in the public sector.  For those on lower pay, part-time work is the most common form of 'flexible' work.  While their managers start to work from home or have greater choice over their working hours, low paid workers are not trusted to do the same.

Of course many jobs on the front line in manufacturing and retail, for example, cannot be done from home.  But other forms of flexibility may be relevant.  And for clerical workers, coming into an office is more to do with habit and archaic processes than necessity.

The challenge is how to make flexibility the norm for all workers at all levels, and not just the preserve of the manager and 'knowledge worker' who are empowered to make choices not available to others.

Friday, 21 October 2011

2.5 million looking for a job in the UK - while a billion Chinese look to start a business

I spent the summer in China with the family - combining holiday, family visit and work.  Down in hot, humid sub-tropical Hainan, China's southernmost province.  I was still able to work (virtually) in the UK, though there were times when this tested my remote working capability to the limit.  Dodgy Internet and an extensive array of exotic and invasive local fauna with anything from four to a thousand legs.  Only the dodgy Internet reminded me of Cambridgeshire.  But that's another story.

While we were in China there was a steady diet of woeful news about the UK and other Western economies.  And then the riots around the UK.  This generated a lot of concern amongst Chinese family and friends about whether my family in the UK would be safe, whether it would be safe to go back - and a general mystification as to why it all happened.

The Chinese media went to town on this.  The media is far more open and reflective than  you might expect.  Obviously there are topics to steer clear of, but on business, economics, social affairs and international affairs there's quite a lot of sharp analysis and in-depth discussion. Our soundbite and controversy-driven media could even learn a lesson or two, perhaps.

They interviewed a host of UK analysts and campaigners who always came back to the issue of disaffected youth and the lack of job prospects.  Now we find the new unemployment figures show nearly a million 16-24 year-olds unemployed.  That's serious - but it also set me thinking ...

What young person would want to spend their life making money for someone else as an employee?

It's a truism that everyone in China wants to do business.  The relentless focus on making money, getting the best deal in any situation, can be tiresome for the foreigner.  But it translates into an endless scrum of enterprise and ambition that pervades the culture.  And not least the way young people look at the world.

Down at street level are small enterprises, often involving all the family.  Street after street of small lockup shops or places where the family live over the top.  Grandma and grandpa are there to look after young children and help out as needed.  Older children come back from school, and are doing their homework in the shop/workshop/studio and helping out as needed.  Being part of a family business, then helping to run it or starting their own business is the way to go.

Sitting back and moaning at the government that there's not enough jobs, or not enough training, or that training doesn't lead to jobs - well, who would do that?

Apart from us British, of course.

The new world of work and the spirit of enterprise

So what has all this got to do with the new world of work?

We've got to stop thinking about having job opportunties and start thinking about creating value through our work.  That's what enterprise is.  And home is at the centre of creating new work.  It probably always has been.

Over 60% of startups begin life at home.  An idea + energy + motivation + good organisation.  The showcase examples lead to a Microsoft, HP, Pizza Hut, Ben & Jerry's.  But for most of us it won't - and that's OK.  It's about making a living doing something we can engage with.

Home-based businesses, small local businesses, family businesses - this is the way out of the shadow of recession.  And there have never been better circumstances to do this.  It's not all about 'knowledge workers' working fom home. 

It's about people buying and selling over the Internet, as with the burgeoning number of eBay businesses. It's about growing food in your garden and selling it, making things at home, in the garage, or at local cheap premises and selling them.  Or it's about developing skills - artistic, musical, technical - and selling yourself online.

Norman Tebbit once famously advised the unemployed in the Thatcher era to follow the example of his dad, who got on his bike and went to look for work in the 1930s depression.

75 years later, the advice should be just the opposite.  Get on your bike and go home!  Leave the un-enterprising at the Job Centre, where they can wait for a job they will hate to drop into their lap. 

Take a tip from the Orient.  Buy something. Sell something. Do something.  Make money!  And it all begins at home.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

You called this one right, Vince!

There has been a surge of criticism aimed at the government for shelving plans to extend the 'right to request' flexible working. It's not only come from others campiagning for more flexible working, but also from the Labour party.

The plans to ditch the extension came out at the start of the week, and were reiterated in today's Budget announcement. Labour leader Ed Miliband fiercely denounced it as an attack on working families.

I should be agreeing with him, shouldn't I?

I don't. And here's why.

1) In the process, the government has restated its commitment to extending the right to request to all workers - which we have always argued is the right approach.

The planned extension was just tinkering at the edges anyway, a timid delaying measure intended to avoid more substantial change. Changing eligibility from parents with children under 17 to parents of children under 18 was really going to make very little difference, and it was getting some businesses into a bit of a tizz about bureaucracy.

So why tinker? Just go straight for the real thing!

2) I've always thought the 'right to request' for parents - and not others - was inherently discriminatory. Positive discrimination, perhaps, but still hard to justify. You can end up with situations where people are doing exactly the same job, but only parents (one third of the workforce) are allowed to work flexibly. This can't be right.

3) It's funny how people can become fixated on a process, no matter how odd that process is when you stand back and look at it. I don't really buy into the 'right to request' concept, when it comes down to it.

Apart from being (at the moment) discriminatory, it also invites a reactive, ad hoc, case-by-case approach to implementing flexible working - rather than a proactive and strategic one.

So, rather than carp at ditching a minor adjustment, I think we should them give them 2 cheers for planning to extend the right to all workers.