SMEs adopt a flexible attitude to flexible working

Not all small firms can afford to allow their staff to work from home, new research suggests.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 11 Nov 2010
There's been much discussion lately about the benefits of flexible working. Even the Government is getting in on the act: it's considering extending flexible working rights to all parents of children under 18. But new research, by Virgin Media Business, has identified a potential stumbling block: apparently, just 14% of small businesses offer their employees the opportunity to work flexible hours – or from home – because they simply can’t afford to. Which shows that however good an idea flexible working may be in theory, it will be a lot harder to achieve in practice...

The survey was conducted after a similar poll of FTSE 100 companies found that 69% are prepared to offer employees the option of flexible working. But for the 5,000 small firms (i.e. 250 employees or fewer) polled by Virgin Media Business, the equivalent figure is just 16% - a very different story. It's partly about the bottom line: almost a third said buying and installing all the technology they’d need to allow their staff to work from home would be too expensive. Another 11% said they’re worried that the HR system would be too complicated to implement (although that sounds suspiciously like a slightly lame ‘can’t be bothered’ type excuse to us).
But the biggest issues SMEs seem to have with flexible working are managerial. 43% said their main worry was about having a ‘distributed team’ – i.e. if people aren't in the same office, it will have a negative impact on teamwork and employee morale. In other words, they fear that if people work in separate locations, their business will be less effective, and their staff will feel more isolated. If you've got a small team in the first place, that's an understandable concern.

On the other hand, flexible working can be a boon in terms of employees' work-life balance – 42% of those surveyed said they'd seen an improvement. That's useful in small businesses, whose staff can end up working long (and sometimes unsociable) hours. Apparently it has also encouraged new mothers and other workers who might otherwise leave to stay - so it cuts down on staff turnover too. Some businesses added that they liked having staff available to fix problems out of hours. So there are tangible benefits.

You might think that's a strong enough argument to justify the extra technologuy costs. But by the looks of these figures, not many small firms are buying it yet.

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