I gave a presentation at a series of Microsoft roadshows during the back end of last year about "the way I work" and how it's changed over the years. It was something of a revolution as I have spent most of my 8.5 years here talking technology - starting with Internet Explorer, Proxy Server (now ISA) and then moving on to Office, Exchange, Site Server and Tahoe (now Sharepoint). More recently I spent time working on the mobile device side of our business and learnt to love the 8 hour time difference between Taiwan (HTC) and Seattle (HQ). The presentation talked very little about products and more about the notion of Flexible Working - and just how much things have changed since I joined the UK workforce. A number of pivotal things happened to enable me to work flexibly

  • The Internet and connectivity became (almost) ubiquitous
  • Laptops took over from desktops
  • Mobile technology (PDA's and smartphone's) got usable

On the latter one, I remember being in New Orleans about 7 years ago trying to connect my Philips Nino via a Motorola Timeport back to our RAS server to allow me to get email. Things have changed somewhat - my email now just arrives on my mobile device anywhere I am in the world as GPRS is widely available - where it isn't I can get to my email from any Internet connected PC via Outlook Web Access.

All of this means I can work pretty much anytime, any place but there is one other key factor that makes this possible and it's not technology.

Without this, all of the technology in the world wouldn't allow me to work flexibly. What is surprising is how many organisations haven't worked this out despite that fact that folks like Drucker have been talking about it for years - he coined the term Knowledge Worker in 1959!! He also stated that "Knowledge workers don't believe they are paid to work 9 to 5; they believe they're paid to be effective"

I suppose the summary of this is that technology has to come together with a leap of faith from business leaders that they will actually get more from their employees by providing them with the freedom and technology to allow them to work more flexibly. Many of my friends work for organisations who could enjoy massive benefits (staff morale, greater productivity, employee retention and reduced building costs) by allowing their staff to work flexibly but I guess their management come from the old school of wanting to see people at their desk from 9-5....it's so depressing. The other side of that is they think I'm mad when I read my email on my smartphone perhaps on a Saturday afternoon - my view is that at least I can and I choose to work that way whereas they have no choice - their work is done at work. Perhaps why so many British workers take their work on holiday with them?

The TUC has published a paper that shows the latest figures from Britain's Labour Force Survey (LFS) that British workplaces are still far from flexible. New research for the TUC shows that the majority of employees have no individual working time flexibility. More than one in ten employees - a staggering 2.3 million - would like to work fewer hours even if this involved a cut in pay but are not able to do so. Which takes me to my final point

  • If I were ever to leave Microsoft, top of my list of "wants" from a new employer would be support for flexible working. From the TUC survey, it looks like I'm not alone!

The difference in what the TUC seems to be saying and what I'm talking about is subtle - I am very much an advocate of technology enabling flexible working of many types (working on the road, working from home and working on outputs rather than inputs) whereas the TUC focus is on businesses supporting more flexible working practices. I think the two are not mutually exclusive as technology can enable knowledge workers of all kinds. You could say I am biased but I for one couldn't work any other way and I know several other organisations who have taken the leap of faith and seen the benefits.