Teleworking in action at Unity Trust Bank

Teleworking was introduced at the trade union-affiliated Unity Trust Bank in 1998, based on one of the few teleworking agreements signed between UK employers and unions. This feature, based on research carried out in 2000, examines the development of teleworking at the bank over the past three years.

Teleworking is a fast growing employment practice in the UK (TN9811201S). Recent research by the Institute of Employment Studies (cited in IRS Employment Trends 711, September 2000) shows that the number of people working from home in the UK for at least one day a week in their main job, using a computer and a phone link to keep in touch with their employer or client, rose from 1.2 million to 1.5 million (5.5% of UK employees) in the year to spring 2000. Moreover, if people who use a computer and a telecommunications link to work from home but are not dependent on this technology are included, the figure would increase to 1.8 million or 7% of UK employees. The sector that has recorded the strongest growth in teleworking is financial services which has seen a 34% increase, while the fastest expanding teleworking occupation is management, with a 24% leap in the number of managers working from home.

This feature, based on research funded by the European Commission and carried out during 2000 by Warwick University's Industrial Relations Research Unit, examines the development of teleworking by managerial staff in Unity Trust Bank over the past three years. Interviews were conducted with the personnel director at Unity Trust Bank, a trade union shop steward representing employees at the bank and a manager involved in the teleworking scheme.

The organisation

Unity Trust Bank was set up in 1984 by trade unions as a joint venture with the co-operative movement and provides a wide range of banking services to unions and related organisations. The unions felt that the established banks were not investing their money in the way they wanted, whereas Unity Trust Bank is committed to "principled investment which supports job creation, house building and socially and environmentally sound development initiatives". The bank is owned by over 40 trade unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress but, due to the Bank of England's insistence that a major clearing bank has a shareholding and controlling interest, the Co-operative Bank (UK9910135F) holds a 30% share. Unity Trust Bank is based in Birmingham, where it employs around 90 people. It recognises the banking trade union UNIFI for collective bargaining, and membership of the union stands at 70% of the workforce.

The introduction of teleworking

The bank moved its head office from London to Birmingham in 1999, due to a decision to focus its business activities primarily in the West Midlands. In 1997, in preparation for the move, staff were given the opportunity either to relocate to Birmingham or to take voluntary redundancy. Business development managers based in London were given the choice either to work from a trade union head office or to telework from home. Because of cost considerations, other regional business development managers, previously based in union regional offices, have also been asked to telework from home.

A pilot scheme was run in the first instance in 1997 to assess the implications and popularity of teleworking, with one business development manager working from home for a year on a trial basis. The scheme having proved successful, all business development managers agreed to telework in 1998. Since business development managers do not have managerial responsibilities for other staff within the bank (their jobs entail monitoring and developing business with unions), the knock-on effects on other staff in the organisation were limited.

The bank's personnel director and managing director, together with UNIFI, drew up guidelines for teleworking, setting out best practice. These were to be adhered to by the first cohort of teleworkers and will be reviewed in the event of any extension of its use. Key points are as follows:

  • teleworkers receive the same rates of pay and employment benefits as they received before. They are expected to work a defined number of hours, although with obvious flexibility in the timing of those hours;
  • they are offered the same career development and appraisal schemes and training opportunities as similar office-based staff; and
  • the standard procedures used for office-based staff also apply to teleworkers should grievances or disciplinary problems arise.

The bank provides all necessary computer equipment and is responsible for installation, servicing and compliance with health and safety requirements. The bank is also responsible for any accident or injury insurance. The bank does not pay for domestic heating and lighting costs, but this is offset by on the teleworkers' savings on travel costs.

All teleworkers attend bi-monthly team briefing sessions with their manager, which are held over two days at the Birmingham office. This also gives an opportunity for the whole team to get together to discuss developments and to socialise.

The bank has emphasised that teleworking is voluntary and that any changes requested by staff will be reviewed. After three years of the scheme, no managers have so far expressed any dissatisfaction.

Rationale

The main reason for the bank's introduction of teleworking was to save costs, primarily on office rents. First, rent was saved by closing the office in London, then by transferring managers from regional union offices to home offices. The use of teleworking also appears likely to be extended to other staff currently based at the head office in Birmingham due to pressure on office accommodation arising from plans to expand staff numbers, especially through the bank's internet banking facilities. This would most likely affect its sales force which sells financial products to union members rather than to union branches, and would affect new recruits and existing members of staff equally, implying the need for different management strategies for these two sets of workers.

The impact of teleworking

At the time that teleworking was introduced, UNIFI voiced no major objections to the practice and has not expressed concerns about its extension in the future. The UNIFI shop steward stated that "as long as individuals are not made worse off by teleworking, we have no objections." The local officers make sure that UNIFI's national guidelines are adhered to by the bank and they maintain regular contact with all teleworkers. Regular health and safety checks at teleworkers' homes are also organised through the union.

The personnel director expressed satisfaction with the scheme: since changing to teleworking, business development managers have met and often exceeded their financial targets. She stated that this type of job was well suited to teleworking since: no supervision of other staff is entailed; the work involves either travelling near to the workers' homes or using the telephone; and success could be easily measured. The only concern she expressed was that managers were working longer hours than they had done when they were office-based and perhaps longer than necessary. However, she stated that all teleworkers had indicated that they appreciated the flexibility that teleworking offered and, whilst they might work longer hours, they had the flexibility to arrange them when convenient.

One teleworker explained that teleworking had benefited her family life, in that she could take her children to school in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon, which was previously impossible. Whilst she saw teleworking as benefiting both herself and management, she voiced reservations about the practice being extended to other members of staff. She expressed satisfaction at being able to decide her own working hours, but stated that she would be concerned that people unused to working away from the office would feel isolated and become "distant from the goals and objectives of the organisation".

Commentary

UNIFI's agreement with Unity Trust Bank is one of only a handful of formal teleworking agreements signed between UK employers and unions. With the introduction of teleworking, the bank has been able to reduce costs whilst retaining highly skilled staff and maintaining their motivation and commitment. More generally, there has been a large element of mutuality in the introduction of flexible working at the bank, mainly due to positive management-union relations.

The teleworkers covered by this agreement are privileged "core" workers: they are well paid, with relatively scarce skills, high-trust relationships and a great deal of autonomy over where and when they work. They also have access to trade union representation. They are close to the "information age" description of workers as highly skilled specialists "who can direct and discipline their own performance through organised feedback from customers and headquarters" ("The coming of the new organisation", Peter Drucker, Harvard Business Review, 1988). As such, they have a different experience of work to those people whose teleworking jobs are characterised by isolation, low skills, low pay and lack of representation. It is this type of flexible working which would need closer monitoring and greater regulation to ensure the protection of more vulnerable individuals. (Rachael McIlroy, UK Research Partnership)

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