21/07/2013 16:41 BST | Updated 20/09/2013 06:12 BST

A Better Way of Working


Nobody would dispute that the digital revolution has completely transformed the way society thinks and operates. Since its introduction, not only business, but also government, education, health, entertainment and so many other areas of life have changed almost beyond recognition.

But in one area it has had less impact than I would have imagined. It seemed obvious to me that the advent of the internet spelled the end of the office, freeing those living in advanced societies from the tyranny of the commute, and allowing companies to save billions on the need to provide expensive working environments in our cities. What we call better ways of working, which has been condensed by a lot of people to mean flexible working.

But instead the established attitude that employees need to be office-based has remained, with most of us still working in a way that would be familiar to our parents and grandparents. Influential figures continue to argue passionately against those who don't trudge daily into the office and continue to insist that we should all be desk-bound where we can be supervised closely by our employers.

I believe that a few years from now we will look back with incredulity at the stubbornness with which we clung to this outdated way of working. Better ways of working is more than just working from home, it's about working from wherever you need to be, whether that's from a café with a client, a customer's HQ or during your commute.

This week a research report, commissioned by Vodafone and produced by an independent think tank, the RSA, has taken a look at the potential benefits for individuals, companies and the country from adopting better ways of working.

The report shows, using conservative calculations, that better ways of working would save the average employee five productive hours a week, which works out, in average salary terms, to around £4,200 per employee per year. Employers would also save £650 per employee on the cost of the desk space they occupy, and £100 on printing.

Multiply these numbers across Britain, and the country as a whole would gain £6.9billion year in working hours gained, and save £1.2billion a year on the cost of all that deskspace and printing costs.

I've worked with many international companies, for whom face-to-face meetings between employees working on the same projects are often impossible. They use increasingly straightforward and reliable technology to bridge the gap, meeting virtually through teleconferencing, brainstorming online, with chief executives communicating through emails and video to disparate workforces knit together by increasingly sophisticated intranets.

All of these techniques would be perfectly possible for domestic companies as well, but they would have one additional, inestimable benefit. They would free employers from the pernicious idea that time spent at a desk is always productive, and that the last person to leave the office is the most valuable employee.

In all the businesses that I've worked with, the most creative employees often have their best ideas while not in the office, and are very unlikely to be thinking inspirational thoughts while compelled to remain at their desks by a culture of presenteeism. British business needs to be agile and give employees the ability to work from anywhere, anytime if we are going to be competitive.

I'm not for one moment arguing for shorter working hours. Many jobs require huge commitment of time and effort to do them well. But allowing employees to work when it suits their lives benefits everyone. And doing away with hours spent slogging into the office so that middle managers can eliminate inspiration through supervision won't help anyone. It's about connectivity, not proximity.

Human beings should be liberated to love their work. Better ways of working is the way to achieve this.