"Working practices are a major contributor to our problems, and also the greatest opportunity to address them."
The annual Work Wise UK Summit was held at the QEII Conference Centre in London today, Wednesday, May 16. Leading speakers discussed and debated progressing the campaign for the wider adoption of new smarter working practices to increase business productivity and competitiveness, reduce transport congestion and pollution, improve health, assist disadvantaged groups, and harmonise work and family commitments.
The past few months have seen predictions of environmental disaster by the Stern Report, transport gridlock by the Eddington Report and the World Economic Forum reporting that the UK has fallen into the relegation zone of global competitiveness.
David Lennan, chairman of Work Wise UK, said in opening the summit: "Working practices are a major contributor to our problems, and also the greatest opportunity to address them.
"Our working practices come from a bygone era and are actually extremely inefficient and wasteful in terms of time and energy. Working 9 to 5, five days a week, from a central location, coupled with the desire to travel many many miles to attend meetings, are working practices which are largely unnecessary considering the technology available today.
"Changing these practices is an obvious solution to addressing the four main issues facing our economy: competitiveness, the environment, road congestion and quality of life."
Sir Digby Jones, UK skills envoy and former director general of the CBI, reinforced this view by giving a stark warning: "The world is changing fast, and unless businesses in this country rise to the challenges of the new global economy and adopt new working practices, they will miss out.
"Let's be clear about this, the economies of countries such as China and India are expanding at a massive pace, and will eclipse the established economies in the West within a matter of a few years unless we act now. Just look at the impact the Industrial Revolution had on the world and the prosperity of this country when we innovated and embraced new technologies and working practices in the 19th century.
"A successful economy is one that is prosperous and dynamic. One that moves and changes as the market moves and changes, one which makes efficient use of the resources it has at its disposal, without endangering the environment. It's about applying knowledge, not just hours.
Work Wise UK, which was launched in May last year, is a five-year not-for-profit programme to encourage new smarter working practices such as flexible working (including condensed hours and nine-day fortnights), remote and mobile working, and working from home. It has broad backing from Government, business and trade unions, and is gaining significant momentum throughout the UK.
Equalities Minister Ruth Kelly, who made the keynote speech at the summit, said: "The changes this Government has made in the last ten years, from creating over a million more childcare places to giving six million people the right to request flexible working, has made it easier for people to work smart. We are committed to ensuring that more people can make the most of their skills and contribute to our national prosperity, and will continue to take employers with us on this journey."
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: ''The quality of working life is rapidly becoming an important issue for many working people. A growing number of employees want more flexibility about when and where they work. In a recent government survey* some five million people said that they wanted to switch to flexitime or homeworking. Employers who can meet this demand for different ways of working will gain valuable benefits in terms of improvements in recruitment, motivation and productivity.''
(*DTI 3rd Work Life Balance Survey, 2007)
SMEs are a key focus of the Work Wise UK programme as the sector employs the majority of the working population. David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, a supporter of Work Wise UK, said: "Businesses need smarter working practices if they are to adapt to a labour market with vastly changed expectations and needs. Research undertaken by the British Chambers of Commerce has revealed that in many cases SMEs are ahead of the current debate and are offering their employees the opportunity to work flexibly in a range of different ways. Initiatives like Work Wise can help employer and employee."
Traffic congestion is becoming an increasingly important issue in the UK. The Eddington Report predicted that, if unchecked, congestion will waste around £22 billion worth of time in England alone by 2025. Organisations that adopt new smarter working practices are able to change travel patterns; reducing the overall need to travel and staggering the times when people have to travel.
Ben Plowden, programme director of travel demand management, Transport for London, said: "In the next 15 years, the Capital's population is expected to grow by 800,000 people, which will greatly increase the demand on the transport network, particularly during peak hours. As around 65 per cent of journeys made during those times are work related, it is really important that London's employers are able to take advantage the opportunities smarter working practices can offer both their organisations and their employees.
"Transport for London's Work Place Travel Planning programme helps and supports businesses to set up travel plans which can save them money, reduce absenteeism and improve their employees' quality of life."
Sir Christopher Bland, chairman, BT Group, commented: "I am delighted with BT's involvement in such a forward thinking project. The national announcement for the concordat and the development of a new quality standard dedicated to smarter working policies are key milestones that will establish strong foundations for the project in the coming years."
David Lennan said, in concluding the summit: "Smarter working practices are certainly not untested and untried: BT has been using them for over 10 years, with productivity increases of 20 per cent where they have been introduced. Currently, 80,000, of its workforce, including around 12,000 homeworkers, are working flexibly.
"Smarter working is a win-win solution, there is no downside. The only obstacles to changing working practices are culture and management style. But if the UK is to remain as one of the most progressive economies in the world, we need to overcome these obstacles and encourage a workstyle revolution to create a smarter working Britain able to face up to the challenges of the 21st century."
Further information about Work Wise Week and Work Wise UK can be found at www.workwiseuk.org.