EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

BT, UK: Towards a balanced flexibility

About

Country: 
United Kingdom
Organisation Size: 
Large
Sectors: 
Post and telecommunications
Category: 
Towards a balanced flexibility

BT is one of the UK’s biggest telecommunications and information technology companies. It has been developing flexible working policies for many years. In recent years, it has been promoting its package of measures more widely, both internally to employees and externally as best practice to other employers. Around three-quarters of BT employees currently take advantage of some kind of flexible working, including job-sharing, teleworking, annualised hours and time banking.

Organisational background

BT (formerly British Telecommunications) is one of the biggest telecommunications and information technology companies in the United Kingdom. Privatised in 1984, the company has been through substantial restructuring and has adapted to operate in a highly competitive environment. Apart from its basic fixed network telecommunications operations, it now concentrates on networked information technology services and the provision of broadband internet products and services.

In the year to the end of March 2006, the company made GBP 2.2 billion in pre-tax profit on a turnover of GBP 19.5 billion. It employs 104,000 people worldwide with the vast majority – 93,000 – in the UK.

In contrast with many other companies in the sector, BT’s background as a nationalised industry means that it has a very well developed social dialogue and collective bargaining structure, with two trade unions representing around 80% of the UK workforce. The Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) organises about 59,000 employees including engineers, clerical and administrative workers and call-centre operators. Another union, Connect, represents more senior professional, technical and managerial employees and has about 17,000 members in the company.

Women make up 22% of the BT workforce; workers from ethnic minorities comprise 9%; 2% of the total is disabled.

In recent years, the UK government has legislated to improve flexibility at work – particularly for parents and carers. It has introduced improved maternity, paternity, adoption and parental leave (both paid and unpaid), as well as time off for domestic emergencies. BT’s policies improve upon the basic minimum entitlements: the company’s initiative has focused in particular on flexible ways of working where legislative improvements have been more limited, with employees now having a right to request flexible working arrangements.

Description of the initiative

BT bases its flexible working policies on a number of key ideas about the delivery of services and the recruitment and motivation of the workforce. The company recognises that most people have responsibilities for others, such as children or elderly relatives who may be sick or disabled. It is also aware that with an ageing population such demands on staff are likely to increase. As the working-age population shrinks, so competition for workers will increase. BT believes that many workers will be looking at what an employer can offer in terms of flexibility as the key factor in deciding which job they go for.

The company has targets for recruitment in particular areas, including the recruitment of women, and is particularly conscious of the costs of recruitment. Increasing the proportion of women returning after maternity leave has been an important aim and offering a range of flexible working options has been essential to this. Offering greater flexibility is even more central to recruiting more lone parents, whom the company views as an untapped source of skills.

BT also states that it needs to respond to the increasing demands for flexibility from its customers who want a round-the-clock service and therefore a workforce that can deliver that service. Furthermore, it outlines that it needs to boost productivity and argues that it cannot achieve a sustained increase in employee output by getting people to work longer hours or by applying tighter deadlines.

Flexible working at BT entails a range of different practices including:

  • compressed time – working the same hours but over fewer days, perhaps with some short and some long days;
  • job-sharing;
  • accrual of hours (time-banking) – building up hours to be taken off at particular times such as school holidays;
  • annualised hours;
  • flexitime;
  • teleworking from home;
  • limited working – special arrangements such as term-time working;
  • time out – paid or unpaid leave of up to two years for education, personal development or recreation;
  • ‘freedom to work’: employees agree to work to achieve set outcomes on the basis of quality assessments and in specific timescales, but with no set work pattern or location.

The company also has a range of policies for workers who are winding down towards retirement; such policies may involve fewer hours, a move to a different job with different responsibilities or reduced responsibilities in the same job.

Another possibility is to have a mixture of working arrangements with, for example, some teleworking combined with office-based working or with work from multiple locations. Researchers at the University of Bradford surveyed 5,000 BT employees: the survey, published in February 2006, found that 79% of workers who primarily teleworked thought that their performance had improved over the previous year, compared to 59% of BT employees overall.

There is scope for employees to change their work practices if their personal circumstances change; BT itself may demand a change in work practices if performance problems arise. Policies and procedures exist for proposing, agreeing and implementing these changes.

The company says that two important factors have enabled it to introduce flexibility throughout the company. One is the development of technology that means that individual workers can carry out their job at home or on the move. The second is the establishment of trust in working relationships.

BT monitors job design to try to ensure that the size and complexity of individual workers’ responsibilities are such that they can achieve a good work–life balance and stay in control of their working time.

The general principles of employment policies, such as those on flexible working, are agreed in negotiation with the two trade unions. The detailed implementation in the company then depends on an ongoing information programme about the range of options available and the individual assessment of workers to determine if their circumstances suit the flexibility option they are considering.

BT has set up a special intranet site called ‘Achieving the balance’, which provides employees with the information they need to help them make a decision about the flexible working options. It includes self-selection questions that employes can use to determine whether or not they (and their job) are suited to, say, teleworking. The company says that this has been important in helping to prevent a negative reaction from employees who are refused their first choice of flexible working arrangement, but who see some of their colleagues being allowed to change their arrangements.

Analysis

BT’s flexible working policy has had an impact on a number of different areas although some are difficult to quantify and rely on the company’s own surveys of its employees. In terms of employee acceptance, the overall proportion of workers on some form of flexible work arrangement, at 75%, is one indicator of their endorsement of the policy.

The company has nearly 11,500 teleworkers and over 500 job sharers. The company estimates that the productivity of teleworkers is between 15% and 30% higher than office, depot or call-centre based employees. Call centre operators who telework from home handle 20% more calls than their site-based colleagues.

The company also points out that 99% of its female workforce who go on maternity leave come back to work; this is up from 93% in 2004. It estimates that this high level of return to work saves as much as GBP 5 million in recruitment and induction costs. BT believes there has been a positive impact on external recruitment, with the percentage of female recruits rising to 23.5% of the total intake in 2005.

The company argues that flexibility has had an impact on its level of absenteeism: at 2.35% of calendar days lost to sickness, this is about 20% below the national average. Responses to a company survey suggest that home-based employees are somewhat happier than site-based workers.

Teleworking saves the company money in terms of office costs; it also saves employees costs in terms of commuting. Furthermore, teleworking can bring environmental benefits: A BT analysis from 2001 estimates that the shift to teleworking has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 54,000 tonnes and reduced the consumption of fuel for cars by 12 million litres.

Flexible working has been supported at the highest level within the company: directors and senior managers are used as examples of how it can work; this allays the fears of some employees that their promotion prospects might be limited if they don’t put in long hours in the office.

The company’s director of people and policy, Caroline Water, explains: ‘Let’s be clear and unequivocal: BT introduced its pioneering flexible working policy because of business need, not despite it. At the outset, the most compelling argument was that it would help us attract and retain the best people in a fiercely competitive sector. Today, it is at the heart of our business strategy’.

Exemplary and contextual factors

BT’s flexible working policy is significant in its scale and in terms of how the company makes it a high-profile part of its employment polices. The policy is also unusual in the range of options that are on offer to employees. The challenge for the company is to implement the policy throughout the workforce and try to ensure that everyone can take advantage of some element of flexible working.

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