Thursday, 23 August 2012

Flexible Working = Business as Usual

At home not eating cheese
I wanted to write a short personal piece on whether my Olympic contingency plan had worked or not. Quite simply, it had. Over those two weeks I started thinking about the implications of library and information professionals working from home, such things as flexible hours, home working technologies and wondering if it would work longer term. 

As background, I am solo professional librarian in a medium sized central London law firm. My contracted hours are 9.30-5.30, 5 days a week. My firm is average in its attitude to flexible working and was happy to look at alternative ways of working during this time.

Although the Olympics was necessarily a one off event and the government were ‘"relying on businesses to plan" to keep London functioning’, my firm felt it was a good opportunity to review various other HR policies, IT back up, disaster recovery plans as a side effect. As it happens we could not have anticipated the success of the apparently indestructible London infrastructure – from transport to telecoms. The firm also stressed that this period was not a ‘license to skive’, which was reflected in our ‘business as usual’ Olympic Plan. Indeed my productivity has improved and I’ve already taken examples of improved working practices to the Partnership Director. 

My plan was to complete all current awareness, make a start on enquiries and perhaps deal with the odd supplier query from home. I was given a Blackberry and have a laptop with a home Internet connection. I decided that I wouldn’t need Citrix or access to the network which made my technology requirements straightforward. I would start at 8-8.30am and then take a first breather at 11am. At this point I would get ready and head into the office to generally be at my desk for midday. Then I could work until 5.30-6pm as normal.

As it happened the plan worked brilliantly. The current awareness was easily completed before 9.15am, so information reached people much earlier than usual. I felt no guilt about ignoring emails when starting at 8am because I could start on them without delay at the ‘usual’ time. I found it was as efficient to keep working all morning on research as it was to break mid-morning and head into the office. After a fresh homemade lunch I would brave the virtually empty central line.

In order to get an idea of what others had done over this period, I compiled a few questions (below) and asked Lis-Law. As expected there was a broad range of responses. For instance one library said that they couldn’t work from home because the service they offer is dependent on their excellent hard copy resources but they allowed different shift patterns to ease the commute. The other extreme were individuals who had pre-existing home working agreements with their firms or entire teams which made use of well-established flexible working guidelines.

It was generally agreed that the following tasks could be carried out at home and matches what I’ve been doing:

1. Dealing with emails
2. Current awareness/press monitoring
3. Research, doing enquiries
4. Catching up with professional development
5. Project work, eg trainee induction, library training programmes
6. Report writing
7. Book/journal queries

There are certain limitations and there is work that can’t be done from home. Dealing with post, circulating journals, managing print resources, meetings/updates, printing material, training, ‘can you just’ type queries would be impossible. However the main reason for going into the office is the contact with other people, which is essential for building trust and maintaining relationships with our users. It also helps our home working practices if we have physical meetings with line managers to show what we have been doing.

Possible misuse of flexible working schemes came up as a concern in Lis-Law responses. It’s easy to be cynical but the overall feeling is that people have worked hard to deserve their employer's trust; whether it is working around domestic arrangements or simply finding a relatively undisturbed place to write reports, people are actually grateful for this opportunity. Home workers are not spending their valuable time ‘gobbling cheese’, any more than when at work we are in the canteen eating chocolate bars. Rather we are making use of the technologies available to firms, to provide an excellent uninterrupted service.

Of course the main thing to remember is that this was a one off event in a traditionally quiet summer period and the plan was only meant to last a few weeks. As one respondent pointed out post and DX times were also changed, as were deadlines for court processes which makes for quite an artificial legal working environment. So what use has this exercise been? I’ve proven that in the short term, under certain circumstances LIS professionals need only a laptop and Internet connection to get on with their work. It has also demonstrated that we are valued, trusted members of staff who can be relied on to do their jobs with the minimum of supervision. But most importantly it has shown that law firms’ once rather rigid views are changing with regards flexible working; it is now a realistic option given the right investment, strategy and need.

Further reading: Business as usual for two-thirds of London firms, despite Olympics

Questions that I posed Lis-Law

1. Firstly, did you let any library staff work from home?
2. Was this just a shifting of hours?
3. What work of work was being done at home?
4. Was working from home successful? Have any working practices been reviewed and changed since then?
5. Was any part of it unsuccessful?
6. Are you generally in favour of people working from home? If you are solo like me, any particular issues?


Original Library Olympic Plan (was amended)


· No holiday planned so there will be full library cover.
· Emails picked up between 8am-9am before coming into the office and dealing with any urgent requests whilst at home, in case of any delay getting in
· Subject to the above, Clare will be making best endeavours to get into the office for 10.30am, reviewing it as events unfold. Obviously leaving later - 6.30pm - to make up time
· Clare would prefer not to be asked to go out to other libraries (British Library, Colindale Newspaper Library etc.) during these 2 weeks as there may be travel delays


· Everyone anticipates the central line being very delayed so Clare will be either walking or taking the DLR so will be able to access email on route. In the unlikely event of something very urgent coming in at this time, at least an ETA can be given
· In the unlikely event of the Wi-Fi being inaccessible at home in the morning and an urgent query coming in, the local library is 12 mins walk away and should have internet access
· If all transport / comms go down Clare shall be in the office within an hour and a half (walking) and enquiries will be dealt with in the usual way as best as possible, unless told otherwise by emergency services!


· If you need urgent help and in the unlikely event there is no response from Clare, please call the Law Society Library 0870 606 2511 or email but note that they will be subject to the same inconveniences.
· Should you need any password assistance, please use the automated password reminders that the online services offer

Please could you send queries to Clare by email rather than telephone or in person. They will get the fastest response.

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