Futurologists predicted that by 1985 one half of British employees could be working part of the week from home. Prophecy proved far ahead of practice. Shirley Skeel reports on companies trying new ways to work.
Ashley Dobbs is sitting feet up, in his Herefordshire home in a baggy shirt and a pair of shorts, haggling over the telephone. The talk is property talk, building and restoration talk, with the sums hammered down to the kind of "boy's own" deal that gets signatures on the bottom line. Though not an unhumble man, Dobbs is clearly pleased with himself. Since he deserted his London office and began running his property development form, Acorn Restoration from his home, he has, he says, been able to do nine hours work in just two. Dealing with his builders via the telephone, he has no petty distractions, while his overheads are one-third of what they were in London. And most important of all, he has so much more time for creative thinking. (There is a theory, says he, that this is what managing directors are paid to do).
Dobbs smiles wickedly, "It amuses me that people on the phone imagine me at a desk in a suit and tie, but I might be half-naked in the kitchen making a batch of bred." And quickly, "But all the work gets done." Beside him works his wife Roxanna, who runs her own interior design business, while in a faraway farmhouse across the sea in Ireland his secretary taps away with fury.
Dobbs is the futurologist's dream come true: the free-spirited teleworker with the world at his fingertips. And so committed is he to this lifestyle, that he is heading a £25-million search for venture capital to build a "televillage" near Ross-on-Wye. The blueprint sees 400 timber houses circling a village green clipped by rare breeds of sheep, with cars permitted to enter only from the rear. Some houses will have their own work studios, other residents will use a "telecottage" fully equipped with computers, telephones and fax machines, and with secretarial services on site. The concept aims to tackle one of the big complaints of teleworkers: the feeling of isolation. And, even worse, the deprivation of office gossip.
So is Dobbs just one more dreamer, who, like the buzz names of the '70s and '80s will be proved to be too far ahead of his time? What was it the futurologists predicted again? Professor Charles Handy: that would places would develop into a small core of permanent, creative staff with peripheral groups of part-timers and contractors picking up the bulk of the work. The Henley Centre for Forecasting: that by 1995 on-half of the total number of people in employment could be working at least part of the week from their own homes.
The actuality 10 years later is a change in workplaces far less dramatic than readers of these forecasts might have expected. It is true, as Handy diagnosed, that in some businesses like insurance and public services more work has been fed out to contractors. But the examples are industry-specific, with little proof yet that contracting-out will be broadly applied. As for the use of part-timers, a Price Waterhouse/Cranfield School of Management study of 5,500 European companies does show many companies using more part-timers over the last three years. But - and it is a big but - in most of these companies the flexible staff are only a small percentage of the workforce. In Britain, Government figures show the proportion of part-timers in the country's total workforce (now at 22%) to have risen by only 1% in eight years. On the teleworking side, studies by the National Computing Centre and others threw up figures of 8% to 13% of firms using some teleworkers, But again it is only a tiny number of workers each. Even the threat that the number of school leavers entering the labour force is falling rapidly, has moved few firms to take remedial action. To help fill the gap more women who leave a job to have children will have to be attracted back. Yet the last published figures show only 2% of UK companies offering the incentive of nursing facilities and only 2% job shares.
So what happened? Why did these new fashions in manpower policies not catch on? There was, or is, of course the recession. The predictions were made at a time of high growth when the demand for skilled labour was strong and companies had the resources to offer incentives and to hire more part-timers to meet the demand. As demand plunged, many part-timers were simply laid off, while innovations like teleworking - which are useful when skills are in short supply - fell by the wayside. Some, like the British Institute of Management, claim that little change has occurred also because too many executives "cling like limpets to traditional practices". It is a fair point, though many managers argue that they have yet to be convinced that the new ideas - on how, where and when their staff should work - pay off at the bottom line.
To date, as the examples to follow will show, most of the companies experimenting with new work practices claim they do pay. One group about to find out for itself is car manufacturer Rover. (See also The Rover Revolution p91). The company is adopting a Japanese workforce model that, though it does not look like the Charles Handy model of "core and periphery workers", has precisely the same aim: to give flexibility, while retaining a force of loyal, permanent staff. It's "New Deal" aims to win loyalty by giving its workers the security of guaranteed jobs for life. Flexibility is achieved through "team working" - a concept by where quality control, maintenance and cost-cutting are made the responsibility of every member of a 15-man team. The £35 million a year spent on training will also allow workers to be moved about to meet fluctuations in demand (eg. to the body shop when the assembly line is slow). Further efficiencies will be sought by asking workers for their ideas on improvements.
And can we believe it will all pay off? "We have only to look across the Atlantic," says a Rover spokesman. "In the last five years 12 large Japanese transplant companies opened in the US and 12 indigenous US companies closed. The lesson is there to see."
Car part maker Unipart has adopted similar schemes at its Oxford factory over the last four years. It reports an exceptionally enthusiastic workforce, absenteeism under 2% and savings of £1.8 million through implementing staff ideas. As Handy perceptively remarks, pondering why such egalitarianism might work better; "Intelligent people prefer to agree rather than obey."
One might well devine that intelligent people also like to organise their time and workplace for themselves. So it was that computer company ICL found itself 20 years ago with a team of competent young women who insisted they could do the job just as well from home. The daring ICL manager who allowed it has been rewarded with a £9-million turnover subsidiary, CPS which now employs 210 homeworkers in its software supply.
Don't for a minute, however, picture this as some kind of monstorous regiment of women number-crunching at home with a litter of babies round their ankles. Says CPS manager Linda Neilson stoutly, "We spend quite a lot of time probing our applicants' backgrounds. They need to be good communicators, resourceful and able to meet deadlines." Teleworking, she says, demands discipline in all respects - even how often you raid the larder or make a cup of coffee. The claim is that teleworkers not only allow large savings on rented office space, but they actually plough more productive time into their company. Institute of Manpower Studies researcher Andrew Wilson cites the case of a law firm which found their homeworking partners were 30% more productive.
Teleworking has, however, suffered some bad press. A study by the OTR group consultancy concluded that the negative effects of teleworking outweigh the positive ones. It suggested few people and few jobs are suitable for telework, and that the worker - who oft times gains his sense of worth from the office - easily feels isolated. It says that this, plus the supervisors fear of "losing control" of its staff, are serious impediments to teleworking's growth. The report even suggests that the teleworkers' home life might suffer because, without the usual office gossip, there is less to talk about with one's spouse.
At IBM a pilot programme has just been completed testing a less dramatic concept, but one stemming from the same idea: that expensive office space is not needed for every staff member, all the time. this is particularly true for salesmen and consultants, who are often out seeing clients. Quite brilliantly IBM has taken advantage of this fact, coming up with what it calls its "smart office". Equipped with the latest in computer intelligence, this plain-looking office serves as homebase for 100 staff, but has only 60 desks. Practically, it works well, with the galivanting salespeople sharing the available desks. As 70% of IBM's staff are in sales, the space saving of 20% to 30% per 100 people can add up to a tidy sum. The sophistication of the smart office makes it quite feasible for salespeople to work from afar: they can borrow a terminal at a client's office or at another IBM office and access whoever or whatever they need. Paperwork and memos are replaced ny electronic mail, personal software and a "log on" phone system that will identify where in the country any staff member is. "We're about to roll the scheme out across the UK," IBM personnel director Simon Dyson reports. For this computer firm this paper-less, desk-sharing world is ideal.
Another innovation, job sharing, is slowly gaining acceptance as firms wake up to the threat of a rising shortage of skilled staff. It is predicted that, by 1995, 80% of those joining the workforce will be women, so firms need not only to attract the best of these incoming women but to hang on to the skilled staff they have. Offering job-shares is a cheap and effective way to do it.
Brian Taylor, sometimes thriller writer, and Carol Singleton, mother of two, share a job processing mortgages at NatWest's Preston office. Previously, both worked full-time - now Brian works three days of the week sand Carol two. For Carol it has meant having the time to care for two babies; for Brian this has been his chance to fulfil a long-harboured desire: "When you're full-time you always say you'll get around to doing some writing, but you never do." Both admit the arrangement can lead to a "bit of confusion" when a manager finds himself talking to a new face, but they say their renewed enthusiasm for the job ensures the work is fastidiously done. For NatWest the job-share has meant keeping two experienced staff.
Midland Bank, which has proved itself an outright radical in Britain by setting up a record 116 nurseries, estimates it saves some £16,000 on replacement costs each time it keeps a trained staff member. Says equal opportunities director Ann Watts: "Our return rate for women leaving to have a baby has been rising dramatically. Talent and experience are never there in over abundant quantities, so there is a huge bottom-line saving if you can retain these staff."
Adopting new strategies of course has its costs. In most cases no great reorganisation of managers is needed. However attitudes - those of both staff and management - do need to change. Sometimes radically. No company can afford to have their staff miffed, or perhaps even seriously disorientated, because they do not understand why their job has been unilaterally changed - as in the case where an office manager suddenly finds half his staff working from home two days a week.
Setting up the kind of two-way communications needed to prevent confusion and resentment, can in a large firm, take a lot of time and money. So much so that it is tempting to overlook the issue. But the cost of not attending to staff attitudes is far greater - both in terms of trust and efficiency.
The point is well demonstrated by Digital's experience. In the last three years Digital has chosen to put huge resources into two-way communications. "We are talking about millions," says internal communications manager Paul Dinwhiddy. "The reason is that we had a number of new programmes that didn't work. and we found that that was because our communications weren't working." Each Digital director now meets a small group of employees several times a year - a total of 65 sessions. "What directors hear from management is not what actually happens in the company. So we decided to get them to talk to the people who are in the firing line." Dinwhiddy claims the new open lines have helped director decision-making and gone far to motivate the staff.
So do these trials with new ways of working suggest a revolutionary future - a world where the company employee runs loose, putting his two bits in to the boss and juggling his hours to suit his personal need? For most of us, probably not. What will happen though as the new EC competition bites is that the 50% of firms who said 1989 that they had been discussing new manpower policies (less than half of them acted on it) will be putting it solidly back on the agenda. The experience of those who have tried the new incentives and the new forms of staff deployment, will be turned over and examined, until bit by bit, the ideas are adapted to fit individual firms.
Why? To paraphrase IMS's John Atkinson: capital and technology you can secure in much the same form wherever you are in the world today. But workforces are unique. Thus investing in the workers' skills and deploying them in the best way possible is the essential element on which competition will turn.
British manager certainly are not blind to this theory - many espouse it themselves. The problem is having the faith and resources to put it into practice. The problem, as always. is priorities. In the '80s it was the deployment of manager in the new "flat organisation" that got all the attention. In the '90s it may well be the ordinary worker and the best use of his talents that catches the chief executive's eye.