Flexible workforce for a slimmer office

A wholesale shift in flexible working strategy will help Lambeth Council reduce its real estate costs by £4.5m a year. Hashi Syedain investigates how the council plans to embrace change and meet its challenging target within three years.

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Building a business networkBy the time Lambeth Council opens its new town hall in 2017, it will be expecting no more than 60% of workers to turn up at the office on any given day.

It’s not that the rest won’t be working. But Lambeth is putting flexible working at the heart of a five-year restructuring that will see the number of council buildings drop from 14 to just two – with a redeveloped Brixton town hall as its flagship site.

Reducing the number of buildings is part of Lambeth’s answer to losing half its central government funding by 2016. Fewer buildings means lower running costs. But it also means less space for desks – particularly since the vision for the new town hall includes lots of community space alongside council workspace. Indeed the ratio of employees to desks will drop from virtually one-to-one now to six desks per 10 people.

“If everyone turned up on the first day wanting a desk, there’d be nowhere for them to go,” says David Minahan, Change Manager at Lambeth Council.

Being flexible about flexibility

Flexible working will take many forms, including part-time or condensed hours, job-sharing and working from home. All of these already exist at the council. But Lambeth is aiming for much more. In particular, it is becoming more flexible about the location of work and more open to requests for all kinds of flexible arrangements.

David Minahan, Change Manager at Lambeth Council explains: ad hoc home working won’t require a formal request and using technology to work off site will become part of normal practice. “If people have been on a visit, and want to write it up in Costa, they won’t need permission,” he says.

The starting point is “Yes”

Meanwhile, the formal flexible working policy will be turned on its head. Timewise is currently helping Lambeth draft a new policy that “takes ‘yes’ as its starting point,” as Minahan puts it. Instead of employees having to make a business case for the arrangement they want, they will just have to ask. It will be up to the manager to make the case for refusal, if they feel the proposed arrangement isn’t possible.

Teams will decide on core hours and managers will get support to work out how to deal with competing claims. Individual arrangements may not always last forever. “It’s about honest conversations,” says Minahan.

Part of the culture change that will be needed is a more sophisticated approach to risk. Often the reason for insisting on bodies in the office is the perceived need to have enough people available in the event of a crisis. “Managers need to understand risk and not have staff on site for ‘once in a blue moon’ situations,” Minahan explains. “They need to develop frameworks to get the support in, if they need it.”

Flexibility to help with recruitment

Flexible working will be considered for new as well as existing employees. The council is presently drafting a strapline for its recruitment advertising to make this clear.

Timewise co-founder Emma Stewart says this is an important part of embracing a flexible working culture. “Flexible working brings many benefits to organisations, so it makes sense to offer it to new recruits from the off.”

Minahan agrees. “It will broaden the scope for potential candidates who might not apply for posts otherwise, like workplace returners or professionals who want to spend their time on different projects,” he explains. “We think it might help us recruit planners and social workers, where we’ve had trouble getting people.”

Better engagement

Lambeth is also expecting improved employee engagement as it rolls out more flexibility. The employee survey shows clear correlations between greater flexibility and higher satisfaction, says Minahan. For example, 81% of staff in its cooperative business development unit, which has high rates of flexible working, are satisfied with their work environment compared to 55% overall. In another area with high flexibility, 51% say they are satisfied with the resources they have to do the job, compared with 43% overall.

Doing the culture change first

Lambeth’s aim is to make the culture change necessary to embed flexible working across the whole organisation long before the new town hall opens.

As part of this process, it is seeking Timewise Council accreditation, which it hopes to achieve by early next year. The accreditation process both enables it to learn from the experience of other employers and acts as a demonstration of commitment, says Minahan.

“Flexible working isn’t about rewarding individual employees,” says Minahan. “It just makes good business sense for getting the best from our people and our space.”