BT - Senior Manager's view

Flexibility pays 

Caroline Waters OBE, former Director of People and Policy for BT Group

For any organisation, major change only occurs as a result of a clear vision based on a business need. When BT began its journey towards becoming an organisation characterised by a high degree of flexibility in the late 1970s, it identified globalisation, fast accelerating technological developments and an expected huge increase in consumer demand as three key factors with profound implications for it as an organisation. It was clear that BT would experience high demand 365 days a year and 24/7, and that to respond to this it would need to engage its employees 24/7. Yet the fiercely competitive business environment it faced meant it would have to do this without increasing costs.

BT grasped early on that flexibility is about choice, and that the detail of how flexibility can be achieved cannot be prescribed. More important was to ask, ’what do you want flexibility to be?’ This posed a real challenge for managers, who crucially needed to grasp both the business needs facing the organisation, and the aspirations of its people. And what fast became clear was that most people in BT wanted to continue to work an average week, but to do so ’in a different way’.

Analysis of the business showed that, in an extremely competitive market, the organisation had to reduce its operating costs. Infrastructure costs were very high, but as it began to encourage home-based working, BT realised that the organisation could save £6,000 with each home worker it created – more if staff were based in London. With 11,000 staff home-based in 2005, this represents an enormous saving of over £60 million.

A glance at the demographic trends, listening to what children and young people say about how the adults in their lives work, and intelligence about the attitudes of graduates and the other young people BT needs to attract as future employees and customers quickly shows how unsustainable extended commuting times and long inflexible working hours are in relation to family and personal life.

Of BT’s current 102,000 strong workforce today, 75,000 work flexibly. BT has calculated the average increase in productivity for these workers at 21% – worth at least £5-6 million on the company bottom line. BT’s annual staff turnover is below 4% – when the sector average is 17% – and sickness absence among home workers averages below 3 days per person per annum.

Just as important, BT’s 20 million customers rate quality of service 5% higher than before – and these customers are 7% happier too. These important business gains show that introducing flexible working arrangements has already made business sense for BT in hard economic terms.

Getting managers at all levels within BT to accept flexible working as the norm has not been without its challenges. It’s been important when talking to managers and introducing flexible working to show them the evidence that proves managers using flexible working have better bottom line results than those who do not.

  • Flexible workers are 14% happier than other colleagues.
  • Stress related absence has been reduced by 26% through flexible working alone.
  • Carers can continue to harmonise their caring and working lives – a crucial issue with the rise in caring responsibilities throughout society.

To sum up: if you put flexible working practices in place, and allow your people to engage with them and develop them, you will get:

  • Clear productivity gains.
  • Huge cost savings (for BT nearly £1 billion in accommodation/systems costs alone).
  • Increased customer satisfaction.
  • More creativity and energy (flexible working produces twice as many new ideas).
  • Reduced sick leave.
  • Lower staff turnover.
  • A trust-based relationship with your staff which is ’worth its weight in gold’.