It might be many employees’ dream: getting permission to work from home when there are transport or family problems, or simply to help save the environment. Employers, on the other hand, may baulk at implementing flexible working despite the obvious cost advantages they stand to gain. Who knows what your staff might get up to if they are off on their own?
Yet it seems it is starting to work out in practice. Services provider Imerja with ntl:Telewest recently completed a flexible working implementation for Warrington Borough Council, a 194,000-strong borough by the banks of the Mersey, in Cheshire.
Ian Hawkins, service design and delivery manager at Warrington Borough Council, said the organisation had been targeting flexible working for years. “We were providing remote access for support [and so on] and we were also providing IPsec Virtual Private Networking (VPN) for our council members and a number of others,” he said.
The council had a flexible working group set up and had put a number of things in place already. It had been assessing the activities of various staff and councillors across the entire organisation and looking at where flexible working could prove beneficial. It wanted to ensure it could operate through a crisis as well as make life easier for staff by enabling key services to be delivered remotely.
Imerja and ntl:Telewest have boosted Warrington’s network, deployed encryption technology to secure laptops and USB ports, and instigated a formal flexible working policy that sets parameters for staff who are mobile or remote-access workers.
Hawkins added that the move is partly about work-life balance but also about saving time and money doing necessary tasks. Warrington staff often work o ff-site.
“It was about what are probably usually the normal drivers that people would see in a flexible working initiative,” he said. “It was about improving services at Warrington and taking the services to the public, rather than people having to travel to a specific site, particularly with social care initiatives.”
Success required the involvement and engagement of staff and stakeholders from all across the council – not just ICT staff or management. Out of an initial working group, the council learnt it needed to install new technology to cope with remote access, with the sheer volume of flexible working.
“Then ntl:Telewest and Imerja put in a Juniper-based solution and additional firewalls,” Hawkins said. “We did it in a couple of tiers. In the second tier, it began to look at providing applications to staff, home workers – that type of thing.”
The first part of the project went “roaringly”, according to Hawkins, but tier two’s progress has been shakier. Flexible working also involves a large-ish cultural shift –staff have to understand the benefits and learn how to stay productive away from the office, while their line managers must learn to embrace the opportunities from flexible working and trust staff out of their sight.
“It is about how to manage productivity and performance, sorting out how they would deal with those issues, with staff flexibly working and feeling isolated,” he said. “That can put people off … And the correct health and safety issues have to be worked out.”
The diverse non-IT issues that go hand in hand with flexible working deployments mean that improvements in efficiency will be gradual and cumulative. But improvements are already being seen, according to Hawkins, which in itself encourages stakeholders to commit further to change.
RSA Security SecurID was used to provide two-factor authentication for securing user remote access. Two-factor authentication means using two kinds of authentication together to increase security – generally something the user knows (like a password) and something the user has (like a fingerprint).
Staff will be able to log in more securely no matter where they are working – whether out in the field or at local constituents’ homes.
About 80 social worker staff are working flexibly so far. Part of their job involves going out, meeting clients, writing up notes about each case. In the past, they had to return to the office to transfer notes to the central IT system, but now they can do it wherever they are, typing directly into their own mobile device instead of transferring files back at the office – or even writing their reports long-hand and then entering them into a central computer. The benefits are obvious to even the most Luddite of employees.
“We have sort of a target. We are looking at about 20 per cent of our employees will be able to work flexibly – we haven’t reached that yet – and now we have about 300 users. All together, we want about 600 of our staff with remote access ultimately,” Hawkins said.
Warrington Borough Council has about 8,800 employees, a £180 million budget, and turns over £350 million a year, according to its 2009/10 Health Safety Service Plan. It has 57 elected members representing 24 wards covering an area of 182 square kilometres (113 square miles).
Quickly reaping benefits
“This project has been extremely successful for the council and we are quickly reaping the benefits of a more flexible workforce. We have been impressed with the ntl:Telewest and Imerja partnership, as they ensured that the project was delivered on time, with minimal disruption to normal service,” Hawkins added.
“As a local council, we are required to lead by example and look to reduce carbon emissions.”
Imerja partner ntl:Telewest surveyed 103 councils in August and September. Forty-five per cent of respondents claimed they were following or were about to follow the Treasury’s Operational Efficiency Programme (OEP) recommendations around IT.
According to Treasury, £16 billion each year is spent on public sector IT in the UK, and local government is the biggest spender.
The OEP recommendations are that greater standardisation and simplification of IT systems requires up-front investment to support flexible working initiatives and an increased use of shared services across government bodies. According to the Treasury recommendations, this could save around £3.2 billion a year overall.
John Maund, public sector specialist at ntl:Telewest Business, said many local authorities have recognised that IT has a central role to play even though it cannot make all of the required savings.
“Mounting public sector costs have become the centre of attention for councils,” he said. “Much has already been done to modernise information systems and the potential of next-generation high-speed networks is being tapped.”
Maund said that the ntl:Telewest poll suggests that flexible working is spreading across the mainstream, with shared networks also being deployed to enable council departments, libraries and schools to use one information platform.
“It is now critical that this momentum is maintained so that IT continues to help drive efficiencies and improve the delivery of front-line public services,” Maund said.
The ntl:Telewest poll suggested that quite a few local councils had already done things to help IT to save money and improve the delivery of public services. All 103 councils said they had the technology to let staff work remotely from home or from branch offices. About 85 per cent had a flexible working policy.
Of those that said they had a flexible working policy, 43 per cent claimed it had helped them save on real estate. Ten per cent of councils polled could not confirm, however, if any consolidation of property had happened.
Eighty-two per cent said they were sharing their IT networking infrastructure with social services such as schools or libraries, which offered both financial and operational improvements. Of those, 64 per cent claimed they could guarantee that all their data was kept separate securely, so people could not access content that was not relevant to their roles. About 33 per cent said they were minimising security risks.
Ian Jackson, managing director of Imerja, said that most councils understand the necessity of high-capacity network access and data security.
“The council is now benefiting from increased resilience, capacity and functionality, meaning that services can be delivered in a more efficient manner,” he said. “It looked at supporting their flexible working strategy but also allows us to establish a market-wide footprint via Warrington Borough Council, and to offer more depth of services.”
Previously, Imerja had worked with the council on laptop and encryption projects, so to an extent hardening the endpoints and so on to support expanded flexible working was an obvious outgrowth of work the specialist service provider was already doing.
“The opportunity to get involved in a broader, much more fundamental piece of work was quite exciting for us,” Jackson said. “And hopefully it sets us up to provide other services in future, because Warrington is quite a modern and forward-thinking authority.”
Deployment of the secondary internet service was critical in providing a more secure and remotely accessible infrastructure, alongside Stonewall firewalls that will help balance the internet services. Juniper SSL VPN in a high-availability configuration was also critical to the new set-up, with the bandwidth managed with an Exinda optimiser.
“We have that high-availability configuration. We had to offer flexible working services not only for when staff are away from the workplace but within a different set of operating hours. We needed to be sure it will be available 24x7,” Jackson said. “And then obviously there was the whole migration project away from their existing systems.”
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