Andrew Bibby



Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Flexible Working, January 1997

British local authorities and flexible working

There was a time last summer when Michael Lyons, chief executive of England's largest local authority Birmingham, must have wondered whether it was safe to go on holiday. Settling down comfortably for two week's break abroad, he was amazed to find his authority making headlines in the British press.

Birmingham, the media reported, was engaging in a pioneering teleworking and flexible working programme, which would involve thousands of staff being sent to work from home or encouraged to save office space by hot-desking with other colleagues. The story spread rapidly out from Birmingham, received national coverage in the broadsheets and a slot on Radio 4's Today programme, and became news for the whole country. The problem was, it was news for Michael Lyons too.

It is certainly true that Birmingham City Council is exploring the possibilities which flexible working can offer, but it is also true that the media attention on Birmingham was both premature and way over the top. At the time the story broke, almost the only direct practical programme which the council had in place was a small home-based telework pilot involving just four members of the council's management consultancy wing, FCI.

On the other hand, Birmingham clearly knows how to turn media interest to its advantage. The FCI team promptly organised a one day conference entitled Everything a Local Authority needs to know about Homeworking and Teleworking, held in the city's convention centre at the end of November. About seventy people attended, from about 25 local authorities.

The Birmingham event suggests that local authorities are increasingly taking an interest in flexible working methods - though it's also fair to say, as one of the delegates present in Birmingham put it, that most are still at the stage of dabbling. (As we shall see, however, some authorities are already ahead of the pack.)

Certainly, it could be argued that local authorities should be seriously engaged in this area. In some respects, local authorities are perfectly placed to introduce new working methods. Firstly they are generally very large employers, employing an enormously wide range of staff at least some of whom hardly need to be equipped with a full-time office desk of their own. There are the professionals (such as architects and policy staff), who might prefer the opportunity to work in an environment which gave them fewer interruptions. There are peripatetic staff (such as social workers and care workers) who spend much of their time on the road anyway. And there are legions of administrative and data entry workers, who could - at least in theory - undertake their work from wherever a PC terminal and phone line could be installed.

Furthermore an opportunity for introducing new work methods would seem to be provided by the restructuring upheaval, in Scotland and Wales and also in some parts of England, as new unitary authorities are created and begin operating.

Finally there are also reasons why local authorities and their councillors might want to embrace teleworking programmes: the possibility of bringing employment opportunities to more remote communities within their areas or of reducing the environmental and transport problems associated with commuting, for example.

In reality, however, the primary driving force for most authorities at the moment is the pressure to reduce costs. Birmingham City Council, for example, makes no secret of this. The council was faced with a budget shortfall of approaching £50m and set a target of reducing office accommodation by 20%: hot-desking and teleworking were identified as two possible ways to help achieve this ambitious target. Whilst the council's personnel team is aware that there may be social benefits to these ways of working, the main push has been the need to cut costs.

This is perhaps in contrast to the motivation which lay behind earlier moves towards flexible working. As we shall see, some pioneering local authorities already have several years' experience to call on.

The London Borough of Enfield is a good example. Back in the late 'eighties when the old rates system was being replaced by the Community Charge (Poll Tax), Enfield faced a problem in finding enough adequately trained staff for its Revenues section to cope with the extra administration involved. The borough's solution was to recruit about sixty 'Revenue Homeworkers', about one-third of the total Community Charge team.

As the council put it in an information sheet prepared for its homeworkers:

"[The scheme] is a means of providing permanent jobs within the Revenues Division for people working from home using a VDU carrying out data processing and clerical duties for Community Charge and other Revenue systems.

"Your work is allocated by supervisors (who are also home-based) and delivered to you at your home. You carry out data processing using a VDU in your home connected by a phone link to the Council's computer at the Civic Centre. The Council provides the VDU and the phone link... Home workers will be graded on the same salary grading structure as office-based staff and enjoy the same pension rights and general conditions of service".

The Community Charge has come and gone and so have the recruitment problems which Enfield faced at the time, but the borough's Revenue Homeworker scheme remains very much in operation, with many staff still in post after more than six years. The number of homeworkers employed is currently 47, between them engaged in a full range of work on council tax, benefits and general revenue matters. Whilst incoming calls are handled by office-based staff, many of the homeworkers have the facility to make outgoing calls to the public from their homes. Colin Bullworthy, who has managed the project since its early days, points to the flexibility and productivity advantages of the scheme.

In Hampshire, too, there is the same sense that home-based working is now taken for granted. Hampshire County Council was another early pioneer in developing home teleworking and flexible working arrangements, once again primarily because of recruitment difficulties. Unlike Enfield, however, Hampshire implemented its policies to retain existing employees, rather than as a way of widening the recruitment pool for new staff.

By September 1994, the authority had 42 employees teleworking from home, with a further 200 or so engaged in other flexible working arrangements, including job shares and term time working. Since then, Hampshire has ceased monitoring these take-up figures: the policy is in place, and it is simply up to managers of individual departments to decide if flexible working arrangements are appropriate for their own staff.

Hampshire is, however, currently facing upheaval, as a result of Portsmouth and Southampton's forthcoming secession to form their own unitary authorities.

In fact local government reorganisation, whilst in theory offering the potential for new working methods, has in practice preoccupied personnel staff and senior managers with other more pressing issues to resolve. In Scotland, reorganisation has led to the disappearance of the regional councils, at least two of whom (Grampian and Lothian) had developed strong interests in telework. Lothian, for example, launched its teleworking programme with a great PR fanfare at a day conference held in October 1995. The council was anxious to stress the equal opportunities motivation behind its move:

"The Council recognises that teleworking is a method of working which may assist employees to combine work and domestic responsibilities more easily by eliminating the need to travel to work on a daily basis. The provision of a teleworking facility may also improve the employment opportunities of the disabled, since many disabled people have difficulty in working in a conventional office environment..."

Lothian went on, however, to add that it also foresaw advantages for itself: "It is also acknowledged that several practical benefits will accrue to the Council as a result of teleworking, including increased productivity and an improvement in workflow due to the teleworker experiencing fewer interruptions than in a conventional office situation..."

After reorganisation, however, much of this work has slipped into abeyance. Edinburgh City Council, for example, says that it is more concerned at present in harmonising the basic terms and conditions of employment for the staff it has acquired - teleworking as an issue will have to wait its turn, until some of the initial pressure is off.

Reorganisation in Wales, too, has been responsible for the disappearance of a successful venture in west Wales, which saw local authority staff working for Dyfed County Council make use of a neighbourhood office in the town of Newcastle Emlyn on a touch-down basis. The neighbourhood office was equipped with six workstations, allowing staff to connect the authority's headquarters in Carmarthen.

The Newcastle Emlyn centre was one of a number of neighbourhood offices across Europe to be researched in a EU-funded project 'Offnet', which summarised the project as follows:

"Dyfed County Council is the largest employer in the area and has a sophisticated IT network covering the whole county. The opportunity to participate in the neighbourhood office pilot was presented to each of the council's departments, and three departments expressed an interest: social services (adult and childcare teams), trading standards and the probation service. The Council's main aim in participating was a desire to bring its services closer to the people..

"Important lessons were learned of relevance to other neighbourhood office projects: that sufficient planning should be undertaken prior to implementation, that monitoring should be carried out and that flexibility needs to be built into the system to allow for changes to be made".

Unfortunately, neither Carmarthenshire or Ceredigion, two of the unitaries which have replaced Dyfed, have chosen to continue the scheme and the neighbourhood office is now closed. However, Dyfed's lead has been followed up in a number of areas, in particular in Surrey County Council's new telecentre in Epsom.

Surrey is in the curious position of having its main headquarters building, in Kingston, outside its administrative boundaries. With many employees living some distance away and with the area beset with severe travelling difficulties, the county last year researched the possibility of opening satellite neighbourhood offices in either Guildford or Epsom. The choice fell on Epsom, and the Telecentre there opened last September, initially for a seven-month pilot scheme.

The idea behind the Epsom Telecentre originally came from an employee-led Teleworking Forum and was seen as a way of avoiding unnecessary work travel (the six miles between Epsom and Kingston can sometimes take an hour). As in Birmingham, however, the authority is also actively interested in ways of saving money.

In the short term, Surrey has put about £88,000 into the pilot. However it hopes to make savings in property rationalisation and in productivity increases. According to an information sheet produced by the programme's manager Mark Cope:

"By setting up a programme of Telecentres the potential exists to redesign the traditional office workspace, promoting a more innovative and cost effective use of space. Success in office redesign, through exploring other ways of working, has already been highlighted by the Surrey Audit Service (who achieved a 48% reduction in office space) and Trading Standards (who reduced their sites from four to one)."

Mark Cope's aim is to attract into the telecentre those Surrey employees who live in Epsom, other peripatetic council employees and also local county councillors. "What we're interested in at the moment is moving information, rather than people," he says.

As yet, however, the centre has still conclusively to prove its usefulness. After two months, usage figures were lower than hoped (councillors, in particular, have proved particularly elusive). Mark Cope says that the technology has worked well, but that the main battle is to change cultural attitudes within the organisation ("People still have the mentality that 'this is my desk, this is my begonia'").

Across the Thames, Hertfordshire County Council is following a slightly different route. Herts, like Surrey, suffers from transport problems and is keen to encourage staff not to take unnecessary journeys to work, but its solution is based on utilising the county's existing stock of buildings. The authority is currently launching the idea of 'Oases', touchdown centres which can be used by employees for short sessions (typically 1-1.5 hrs) of desk work. Currently about nine 'oases' have been identified, in a variety of buildings including a central library, an environmental services unit and an attractive barn at occupied by the county's countryside management service. Herts is also arranging for the management of one oasis to be subcontracted to Standon parish council's existing telecentre.

Hertfordshire's Trading Standards staff are acting as guinea-pigs for the oasis idea. Office arrangements for Trading Standards have recently been revised, with several regional offices replaced with one centre where staff share desks. About forty of the service's 70 staff are supplementing this facility by using oases around the county, as and when required. The idea is now being rolled out, to include emergency planning staff and some social services employees.

What about the role of Unison, the powerful local government union, in these developments? As yet, the union has not produced national policy statements or guidelines on the introduction of teleworking and homeworking. According to Keith Sonnet, head of Unison's local government group, the union is not opposed per se to teleworking or other forms of flexible working, but would insist that any changes are introduced in a properly structured and negotiated manner.

In practice, this means that the issue is one which is subject to local negotiation. Unison in the old Lothian regional council has perhaps done the most work in this area. Unison's statement, produced at the launch of Lothian's telework programme in 1995, includes the following comments:

"Unison is keen to emphasise two points:

1. teleworking must not be thought of, or become, a low paid, female preserve; and

2. the conditions of service of a teleworker must not be less than that of someone doing the same job in the office...

"We recommend that at least one day a week be spent in the office to prevent teleworkers becoming isolated from their colleagues... Unison does not regard teleworking as mainstream and it would certainly not support it becoming so at present. For many, working in the communal atmosphere of the office is a welcome relief from home and they would certainly not entertain any push back there."

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