Coventry University Enterprises Ltd (CUE) is the commercial trading arm of Coventry University Higher Education Corporation. The company has been located in offices based at Coventry University Technology Park since it opened in 1998. The company has achieved significant business growth, largely through diversification of its business portfolio. This growth led to an increase in staffing and higher demand for office accommodation. Currently CUE employs some 200 people.
CUE operates a number of divisions with varied types of activities ranging from knowledge-based consultancy through to property management of the Technology Park. The larger divisions, Creativity & Enterprise and International Business Technology Transfer (IBTT), operate using generic project family job descriptions ranging from Project Assistant to Programmes Director level. This provides greater flexibility if funding dries up in one area to redeploy staff to other more lucrative areas and projects. The operational divisions: Finance, IT, Technology Park and Conferencing have more specific roles ranging from Accountants, Finance Assistants, Receptionists and Administrative staff.
Key drivers and purpose of change
In 2002 the Managing Director, as part of the annual review, demonstrated the company occupied the equivalent of one floor of the Innovation Centre. This level of occupancy was restricting space available for business start ups and constraining the company in meeting the objectives of the Technology Park to create employment opportunities in the region. Coupled with the knowledge that CUE would grow by another 50% in two years the Managing Director identified a need to reduce occupancy levels and increase flexibility within the company. Following discussions with IT technicians and research by a member of the management group the concept of Location Independent Working (LIW) was born.
Location Independent Working would enable CUE to offer their employees an opportunity to work from an alternative location than the office, including the ability to work from home, and reduce occupancy of the Innovation Centre. As such the process of technological change has facilitated a change in working practices. The main objectives of introducing LIW were to:
- allow employees the flexibility of working hours and location, thus improving their work life balance
- raise income generation in terms of profitability and facilitate CUE to deliver its primary aim of generating income for the Group
- assist employees in meeting customer needs if their requirements are outside “standard” working hours
- become a more attractive employer
As noted by the Managing Director of Coventry University Enterprises Limited, a key aim of introducing LIW has been “to improve the flexibility of CUE and to enable staff to react better to customer requirements through changing the way we work”
The change process
Policies and procedures for LIW were developed and a three month pilot project of 10 employees commenced in October 2002. These employees were chosen to represent a good mix from across the company and one employee from each division, ranging from junior staff to managers, took part in this initial pilot. The roles included a Finance Assistant, Admin Manager, Project Officer, Project Manager, Divisional Managers, IT Advisors and a Company Director, all of whom worked full time.
The pilot project was managed and evaluated throughout the three months by the Corporate Partnership division managed by Joanne Dobson and overall was judged to be a great success, by both participants and CUE management. The policies and procedures were adapted in light of the pilot and LIW was formally adopted as a way of working by the company. The long term aim was to attract 25% of the workforce to this way of working.
All employees within the company are invited every 6 months to nominate themselves as potential participants for LIW. Responses are collected by an on-line questionnaire and 100% response rate is required before the responses are evaluated. It is important that the invitation is extended across the organisation to ensure equality of opportunity; it is also a useful indicator by which to gauge future demand. The selection criteria are based on:
- degree of required face to face contact with the customer
- no adverse effect on costs or the level and quality of service
- no increase in workload of colleagues (especially those remaining in the office location) as a results of an employee undertaking LIW
- effective communication arrangements between the workplace and location independent worker
- ensure the majority of the work can be delivered and retrieved electronically
- clear objectives and measurable outputs to be agreed prior to the change in working methods
- recommended that staff should have been in-post and office-based for a minimum of three months before being considered for LIW
Following each selection period, briefing sessions are held both for LIW participants and non-participants. These sessions enable everyone to be aware of the objectives of LIW, they encourage questions and answers, and they promote the use of best practice in communication and time management. In addition to the general briefing sessions, one to one meetings are facilitated between the LIW participant and their line manager and these meetings provide an opportunity to discuss any specific operational issues or areas for development. One-to -one technology training was given to all participants when they were set up at home, which included: integrating a mobile Smartphone with a desktop; connectivity issues and how to overcome them; and specific training on how to get the most out of using a laptop with the IT platform offline and on. Using the remote desktop at home and at work was seamless and generally this did not cause any issues for the users. However, different competence levels of users were very evident so user understanding would always be checked.
The appointment of the New Ways of Working Manager within the company ensures a member of the management group is co-ordinating and managing the LIW process. They are also the first point of contact for all LIW participants or their line manager/ colleagues to ensure any problems/concerns/issues can be addressed promptly.
Key features of the Location Independent Working scheme
The key features of LIW scheme at CUE are:
- Staff commit to working remotely from the office for 40-60% of the week
- Participants in the scheme have to be volunteers
- Line manager approval must be gained
- LIW staff receive additional health and safety training
- Participants are briefed on relevant work-life balance techniques
- All volunteers have a three month trial period of working LIW
Each participant is provided with a home office environment which includes computer or laptop, a printer/fax/copier, mobile telephone and ADSL connection to the bespoke terminal server network of the company. A ‘flexi desk’ environment has been developed within Divisions and designated LIW areas to provide participants with an ‘office’ base at the Technology Park. These desks are used on a shared basis by participants, they are booked by electronic diary in advance and to date we have a total of over 30 desks providing a resource for 125 LIW participants.
Innovative application of new technologies
The Location Independent Working project was initially the brain child of the two IT Analyst Advisors in CUE who came up with an innovative working solution to meet the demand for new working practices. Old workstations were initially recycled to accommodate this new concept. As the initial pilot was for a period of 3 months capital expenditure needed to be kept to a minimum.
The old recycled equipment was adapted and given a new lease of life and purpose by being converted into super efficient and reliable dumb terminals. This was achieved by removing all moving parts and creating a bespoke embedded operating system. The concept of LIW has been taken, created and turned into a marketable product in its own right. Thanks to the simultaneous national growth of broadband the concept of LIW has resulted in a robust reliable service.
Work-Life Balance is about organisations identifying with their workforce how both can benefit from a more imaginative and innovative approach to work. This can include all aspects of flexible working, for example: part-time working; annualised hours and home working. This technology-based solution provides assistance with various flexible-working policies, of most relevance to the planned CUE LIW Pilot are: home-working; flexi-time and the hot-desk environment.
By enabling LIW participants to have ADSL broadband connections in their home together with the latest Thin Client terminals supported by a compact printer/fax/copier CUE has created the ideal office environment. Employees can connect seamlessly via the bespoke terminal servers and view their working IT environment just as they would if they were sitting at a desk at the Technology Park. Provision of Outlook and Messenger software enables both LIW participants and their colleagues to ‘chat’ on line, keeping social communication channels enabled regardless of location and distance.
Impact of Location Independent Working
All LIW participants have released their permanent desk; this has enabled CUE to reduce the occupancy of space within the Innovation Centre. The vacated space has been successfully let to new business start ups, therefore increasing the number of tenant companies on site, assisting with the creation of new jobs and growth in income generation for CUE through rent / service charges etc.
Staff who participated in the LIW pilot reported an increase in productivity and in some cases a reduction in their stress level. An unexpected outcome of the pilot was the increase in confidence that some participants, especially those at a more junior level, experienced. The level of trust to work from an alternative location and the investment in equipment was viewed by some participants as empowering and it had a positive impact on both their work and self-development.
At the Divisional level, some teams have experienced an improvement in communication due to the increased awareness caused by staff working remotely and they have adopted both formal (monthly meetings) and informal (messenger software) methods of communication. One Division has highlighted they are experiencing difficulties in communication and they recognise the need to embrace a culture change. The New Ways of Working Manager has provided support to this Division and more work is planned to address these concerns.
The ‘flexi-desk’ environment has been well received throughout the company. A number of LIW participants have commented that they have found working in the ‘flexi-desk’ environment has enabled them to get to know more people in the company, they have the opportunity to interact with different Divisions and this has improved both their knowledge of activity as well getting to know their colleagues.
Some initial teething problems were encountered, for example, with the need to book space in advance, and sometimes the previous occupant would leave files and paperwork at the desk from their previous session. As a result, all LIW participants now have a filing cabinet drawer provided for them in a designated area close to the ‘flexi-desks’ and a reminder note has been placed on all desks about the need to pre-book before use!
In addition to the ‘flexi-desk’ environment, a private meeting room suitable for up to six people to sit in boardroom style is available to be booked in advance by an on-line diary.
Progress against original objectives
The pilot project set out with the objective of establishing policy and procedures to enable CUE to implement a more flexible scheme of working that would reduce office occupancy and improve the work life balance of employees. Through the creation of what we now know as Location Independent Working these objectives were not only met but exceeded. The fact that all 10 participants on the pilot successfully completed it and expressed a desire to remain LIW is testament to this!
· Improve recruitment
The recruitment literature for posts within CUE now incorporates information about LIW and this method of working is explained and explored at interview stage. In this age where work life balance is promoted more and more in the media the option of LIW is perceived to be an attractive opportunity to prospective employees. Currently there is no data to support this; however anecdotal evidence from comments made by recently appointed staff suggests LIW is perceived to be a positive bonus. At the same time, staff numbers have more than doubled in the company in the last six years. The introduction of LIW has enabled the organisation to grow and attract staff from a wider geographical area as there is no need to live locally.
· Reduce absenteeism
The pilot project demonstrated a slight reduction in reported absenteeism statistics however the 3 month duration makes it difficult to draw any conclusive evidence. To date those working LIW do not generally report sickness to any degree as they can adopt a flexible working approach to their workload.
· Increase take up on WLB policies
The pilot was deemed a success by the Director of CUE, the Management Group and importantly the CUE Limited Board of Directors. As a result LIW was rolled out across the company with staff able to volunteer from May 2002 onwards. All the pilot participants elected to continue to work LIW. The project is now in its 12th round and when complete will result in 125 members of staff working LIW - an impressive 69% of the CUE workforce against an original aim of 25%. This total is split across most job functions with the majority of divisional staff now undertaking LIW. The only job roles that are not represented are the Receptionists and the distribution/porter roles. Incidentally none of the staff performing these roles have ever applied to the scheme.
· Increase employee morale
The pilot project introduced LIW to all employees and it invited all employees to express their interest in participating. This was a necessary and positive approach to adopt because it promoted equality for all. The participants on the pilot were a representative sample of the company’s employees in gender, ethnic origin and status within the organisation. This was good for morale throughout the company; the pilot was operating on a level playing field with opportunities for all. The briefing sessions for those participating and those not participating ensured everyone had the opportunity to learn about LIW, helping to dispel any misconceptions that those working in an alternative location were skiving!
LIW participants have commented on their feeling of empowerment, the ability to control their work life balance more effectively, the flexibility of working; overall everyone feels the quality of their work has improved. To date no one has asked to return to their former working arrangements.
There is no evidence to suggest any change in morale within staff those staff who are not LIW, either through choice or their job not being suited to this way of working.
· Reduce stress
Some participants reported a reduction in stress during the pilot and anecdotal evidence from more recent participants suggests this trend continues. In the 3rd Round some participants reported they found themselves working longer hours due to the fact that they have access to the systems and the flexibility to work while at home. These comments were made by way of observation rather than complaint. There has been no work related stress reported since the project began.
· Reduce Occupancy levels
With the introduction of LIW the occupancy levels within the Innovation Centre has decreased by 100 sq m. The vacated space, the equivalent of approx 14 single units, has been let to business start ups and this has enabled CUE to increase income generation.
Actual realised benefits of Location Independent Working (LIW) for the participants and the institution
By implementing location independent working CUE has been able to
- Improve work-life balance for employees
- Improve confidence and motivation for some members of staff
- Reduce sickness/absence levels
- Reduce the company’s occupancy of the Innovation Centre and reduce cost of rental
- Increase the amount of rentable space to external companies by 60sqm
- Drive the company to a more IT enabled environment
- Reduce commute time and costs for LIW participants
- Reduce the demand for car parking facilities
- Reduce the traffic flow in the region by enabling staff to work away from the Technology Park
- Enhance its reputation as an employer
- Retain and recruit high quality staff
- Empower members of staff to control their working week
Building on CUE’s own experience of LIW, Coventry University has launched the establishment of a new centre in support of organisational change and effectiveness. Based at Coventry University’s Technology Park the Applied Centre for Research in eWorking brings together a technology base and expertise enabling organisations to adopt new IT – enabled working practices for improving business performance. The aim is to develop a body of knowledge that will enable public and private sector organisations to implement new working practices, such as LIW, mobile working and virtual organisation. CUE is currently doing just that for a local organisation. Through a consultancy contract CUE have helped pilot E-working for 10 participants within the company; the project going live in September 2007. Also through the newly establish e-working solutions and the appointment of the Business Development Manager CUE are also offering e-working solutions on a consultancy basis to external companies wishing to adopt this way of working.
Future demand and funding could severely impact on the continuation of the LIW Scheme operating at CUE. However there is no evidence to date that would suggest this would be an issue. Changes in connectivity, software and collaborative tools will only make the scheme more desirable along with continued Work Life Balance benefits gained by all.