A new study, commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Vanson Bourne, interviewed 1,500 workers across 15 European countries on their attitudes towards flexible working. It shows that small businesses better meet employees’ demands to have greater flexibility in deciding when and where to work.

The study revealed that even though the majority of office workers want to work more flexibly, the larger the organisation, the less likely its employees are enabled to do so.

Half of the people participating in the study said they lacked access to the most basic technology tools that would enable them to work away from the office. By not enabling the flexibility that working employees demand, larger and medium-sized businesses are missing out on the opportunity to increase their productivity and attract and retain great talent.

  • While about one-quarter of employees in small businesses* (with fewer than 50 employees) regularly work away from the office, only 9 per cent of staff in companies with 500 or more employees do so.
  • Small organisations are the most likely to allow flexible working, with more than two-thirds doing so; one-third have a policy and technology support in place.
  • Eighty per cent of respondents that work for a large organisation do their overtime at the office, compared with only 61 per cent of those who work for small businesses.
  • One-quarter of employees in large organisations cannot access the technology and systems away from the office, while only 16 per cent in small businesses face that problem.

The study also shows that the impact of flexible working goes far beyond employee satisfaction.

  • Fifty-six per cent of flexible workers believe they work more productively away from the office, and 48 per cent say this is because they can fit their work around personal commitments.
  • Seventy-three per cent of workers in Europe think their lives would improve if they could work more flexibly, but less than one-third of businesses provide guidelines on flexible work. Four in 10 employees said the option of flexible work would influence their decision to accept a new job.

The key to success: creating a corporate culture of trust and technology access

In enabling employees to work flexibly, businesses face two challenges: ensuring that people have access to the right kind of technology with IT support and creating a culture that trusts staff to be productive away from the office. Perhaps this is where larger organisations are challenged.

“Organisations that will be successful in the future are those that break down the barriers between people, workplace and technology and establish a culture of trust,” said Klaus Holse Andersen, vice president of Western Europe for Microsoft.

“This means empowering people by providing them with a workplace that facilitates flexibility, self-direction and engagement and enabling them with the technology and tools that help them to be productive wherever they are. To bring the vision of a new world of work to life, leadership teams need to establish a culture that is focused on what individuals achieve, rather than how long they spend in the office.”

According to a recent white paper from Microsoft UK’s Hybrid Organisation initiative, barriers to new ways of working often occur in the middle layers of business. “Often they are the managers who don’t like the idea of having their office taken away from them, and they manage by control instead of by results,” said Peter de Winter, programme director for Workplace Innovation, Philips, a programme introduced five years ago to encourage its people to be more entrepreneurial and innovative. “Most employees and managers, however, love to work according to the new ways of working once they are used to the concept.”

Thus the experts of the Hybrid Organisation initiative Advisory Board recommend that business leaders should work with middle management to devise a flexible vision, creating buy-in and driving change right through the organisation.

Technology plays a vital role in realising the potential of working flexibly, and the IT department holds one of the keys to success – by providing the right off-premises support. However, just 19 per cent of employees find their already overstretched IT team “very helpful” in providing technology support for flexible working. In addition, more than half of all workers say they don’t have access to a company laptop or mobile email device, which means they are lacking the basic tools.

This could also be a reason why 43 per cent of all office workers and one-third of those working for a large enterprise use either a personal laptop or mobile device for email access. And it may explain why 68 per cent of employees who work overtime each week do so from the office. Even though technology is widely available today to enable flexible working – be it mobile devices or cloud services granting access to software and company resources from virtually everywhere – its natural use in European businesses is still not standard.

Third spaces to work: partnering with public administrations

Europe is currently facing a tough economic climate, changing workforce demographics and a widening productivity gap compared to other regions, such as the US. Enabling more flexible working in medium-sized and larger businesses and supporting an increasingly mobile workforce can have a positive impact on Europe’s competitiveness.

Public administrations, such as the City of Barcelona, have taken action already: “Various studies have demonstrated the positive impact mobile working has on a company — reduced time lost in travel, improved customer service, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, increased productivity, better work-life balance,” said Francisco Rodriguez, director of Telecommunications for the City of Barcelona.

Thus, the City of Barcelona, with support from the Microsoft Innovation Center for Productivity, recently launched a portal to help mobile workers find suitable “third places of work”, such as hotels or coffee shops with internet access, printers and other resources, in the city.

The following are other key findings of the study:

  • More than half of office workers have caregiving responsibilities that impact their working hours, with children (39 per cent) and pets (23 per cent) listed as the main reasons.
  • Despite the recognition of the benefits of flexible working, 36 per cent of respondents have never worked away from the office (43 per cent of females and 29 per cent of males).
  • Businesses in Austria, Denmark and Sweden are leading Europe when it comes to offering staff flexible working opportunities — 77 per cent allow staff to work flexibly.
  • In an ideal world, 63 per cent of workers would choose a mixture of working both onsite and offsite.
  • Only 52 per cent of respondents fully trust their colleagues to work productively away from the office.
  • Four in 10 said the option of flexible work would influence their decision to accept a new job, led by Austria (55 per cent), Spain (50 per cent) and Switzerland (49 per cent).
  • One of the top reasons people want to work flexibly is to avoid their commute.