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How Kent County Council is developing flexible ways of working

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Flexible Working, 1999

The English shire counties are, in organisational terms, the giants of local government, and Kent County Council stands out as one of the largest of them all. Even with the removal of the Medway towns (still part of Kent geographically, but a unitary local authority since April last year), Kent services a population of well over 1.3 million. The authority employs about 31,000 staff (20,000 full-time equivalents), and has a total budget of 1 bn.

Kent has been taking a close look at flexible working methods for a number of years, and already can boast a number of interesting developments. For example:

- The authority has opened nine telecentres for its staff in locations around the county, and is actively extending the network towards an eventual target of around twenty.

- A new collective agreement on home-based working has been negotiated with Unison, to replace an earlier teleworking agreement drawn up in 1996. Kent is already happily employing home-based staff, having run a number of telework pilots during 1995 and 1996.

- Desk-sharing is increasingly on the agenda. The authority is committed to an office accommodation strategy based on a 3:4 ratio - or in other words, three desk places for every four people.

- The authority is also actively contemplating ways in which technological development can stimulate new ways of working. One proposal is the establishment of a corporate call centre, to handle general public enquiries.

A list like this suggests that Kent is bravely thrusting itself forward to be on the cutting edge of organisational practice. In reality, of course, the situation is more complex: for example, the vast majority of Kent's employees currently work in the same places and the same ways as they have always done.

Furthermore, there is some hesitation in promoting Kent's flexible working plans too prominently. In contrast to neighbouring Surrey, which has launched an ambitious authority-wide flexible working programme 'Surrey Workstyle' with high-profile endorsement from the authority's chief executive, Kent is opting for an altogether quieter approach to changes in working methods. The talk is of incremental change, of changes filtering through the authority's different directorates by a process of osmosis.

Nevertheless, Kent is currently setting out on a path which, as a committee report in February this year put it, has "the possibility of radically changing the way we work".

The report, approved by the powerful Policy and Resources committee, explored the implications of Kent's major IT and organisational development programme, given the name of Kent First. Kent First involves the overhaul of the authority's use of IT, with the replacement of a motley collection of separate local area networks which have developed in an ad-hoc way in different parts of the authority. In their place, Kent First (which involves capital expenditure of up to 6m and substantial additional revenue costs) will lead to a dedicated, wide-band high capacity electronic network across the authority, with standardised desktops.

Kent's overhaul of its IT is partly necessary to ensure Year 2000 compliance. However, the technological changes are definitely seen as creating wider organisational opportunities. The February committee report includes a statement summarising what it describes as the 'vision':

'To significantly improve the access, responsiveness, quality and volume of KCC services to the public by radically changing the way we work; investing in new technology; introducing modern business methods; reducing the costs of administration and diverting resources to the front- line'

The committee paper goes on to spell out in more detail some of the ways in which work may change for Kent's 'switched-on staff':

"Many staff would be able to work anywhere (including home) and at any time. Their link with other agencies would be strengthened encouraging even more joint working and collaboration... To complement this their terms and conditions of service would be modernised, empowering staff to work flexibly by removing the constraints of time and place of work or tightly defined job descriptions from their contracts of employment. They and their managers would need new skills, training and development in order to take full advantage of the new arrangements. The proposals fundamentally challenge our traditional ways of doing things."

Kent's development of flexible working methods is variously described as 'Working Smarter', or 'Work Smart'. It is coordinated by a cross- departmental working committee of officers which meets fortnightly, convened by Richard Thompson, whose role is as a 'change manager' based in the authority's Policy and Review Unit.

Richard Thompson reiterates that the current technological review is the first step in a process which will move on to look at business processes and personnel issues. "What we're doing is identifying that the new platform of technology will unlock some ways of thinking generally around work styles," he says. "It gives us an opportunity to transform our processes."

He stresses however that the aim is to encourage different groups within the authority to find for themselves the most appropriate new ways of working. "We want to allow teams to find what is right for them. We are not saying to people, you will moving from working in an office to working at home. There are a range of workstyles for each individual, which may include some office-based working, remote working, home working, use of a telecentre, and so on."

Kent already has the experience of three pilot flexible working programmes to draw on. These primarily affected mobile or peripatetic staff. The largest pilot (which ran from August 1995 to early 1996) involved twenty- seven social services Care Managers based in the Ashford area, and was primarily focused on the use of local telecentres. Four local telecentres were established in villages near Ashford, each equipped with standard office facilities such as telephones, fax and photocopiers and with access to e-mail and the care management computer network. The Ashford local office was effectively turned into a fifth, urban, telecentre, with shared use of facilities and no dedicated desks.

An evaluation report of the pilot said that it had demonstrated substantial benefits:

"Use of Office Space: the use of the previously overcrowded Ashford Local Office dropped by 34%. Even when time spent in telecentres was taken into account, gains in productivity allowed the average office-based time of Care Managers to drop by 7 hours per week.

"Productivity: Care Managers found that they could cope with their workload more easily leading to a reduction in excess hours and to significant improvements in key measures of performance such as the percentage of cases assessed within 28 days of referral and the percentage of case reviews carried out within six months of assessment. (However there were other favourable factors which may have contributed to these gains).

"Job satisfaction: Participants said that they felt more positively motivated and less stressed as a result of having greater control over their lives, They had a sense of being trusted and therefore valued.

"There were also some surprises - there was substantially increased mileage by Care Managers (an offshoot of increased productivity?) and, in contrast to the substantial reduction in sickness amongst Care Managers, there was a sharp rise in sickness among support staff, despite the fact that their experience of the pilot was a positive one."

The Care Managers team continued to work flexibly after the formal end of the pilot programme.

Small, localised telecentres, continue to play a significant role in Kent's plans to develop flexible working. One of the Work Smart team, Mike Ashworth, has particular responsibility for developing the telecentre network, which has been built up primarily using unused space in library buildings.

Mike Ashworth says that Kent has adopted a 'small is beautiful' approach, with telecentres typically equipped with just two PCs and with phone and fax facilities. The idea is that mobile staff use the centres as very short- term touch-down bases - stays of more than an hour or two are discouraged. There is no prior pre-booking system, and no dedicated reception worker on hand. For the telecentres based in libraries, people simply introduce themselves when they arrive to a member of the library staff and are then given an appropriate system password to access the council's network. "One or two staff were a bit dubious initially, but we pointed out that all we wanted them to do was to check that people had an ID card. They weren't there to run things," Mike Ashworth says.

This approach means that Kent's telecentre network can be built up at minimal cost. Last year's budget for telecentres was only 120,000, and Mike Ashworth says that new centres can typically be established for 8,000- 10,000. The work involved may be little more than putting in the hardware and suitable furniture, adding an extra socket and perhaps improving lighting. Most of the council's existing computer networks can be accessed, although it will take the implementation of Kent First for access to all corporate files to be possible. "People have access to their e-mail, however, which is important," Mike Ashworth says.

Five of the nine existing telecentres, those in Folkestone, Herne Bay, Deal, Queenborough and Cliftonville (Margate), are in libraries. Other telecentres are based in Kent County Council premises in Ashford, West Malling, Northfleet, and at County Hall itself in Maidstone.

The minimalist approach to telecentres being adopted by Kent contrasts with Surrey's much larger and considerably more expensive (88,000 in its initial phase alone) telecentre, in Epsom. Mike Ashworth says that Kent may in due course choose to open larger Epsom-style centres, with pre-booking facilities and more amenities. For the present, however, the plan remains to extend the network of small centres, with a further eleven planned for the current financial year to take the total to twenty.

Kent's two other flexible working pilots were more focused on home-based working. Fifteen educational psychologists in south and east Kent took part in a pilot between July and December 1996; five consultants from the professional services department had a similar programme, also for six months in 1996. In both cases, flexible working has continued beyond the pilot period.

Accompanying these developments, the council's personnel department also drew up and agreed with the trade union Unison a Local Agreement on Teleworking. This agreement was one of the earliest telework agreements established in local government in Britain, and was designed to cover both home-based and telecentre working.

Kent's personnel department has recently revisited this agreement, and in conjunction with Unison has revised it to apply simply to home-based teleworking. This agreement is now awaiting formal approval, subject only to the somewhat vexed issue of the size of allowance which staff will be given for working at home. Kent plans to set this at a level which the Inland Revenue will regard as reasonable reimbursement, and therefore non- taxable.

The main features of Kent's home-based working agreement are as follows:

    - Voluntary arrangements

    Home-based working requires both employee and line manager consent

    - Communication

    Home-based workers have an 'administrative centre' (usually where their team is based), which they must attend regularly; managers have a responsibility to ensure home workers receive information and communication.

    - Hours of work

    Normally, no change to contractual hours. The pattern of work hours is to be agreed between the employer and employee

    - Health and Safety

    This reasserts employer and employee obligations towards health and safety at work; the line manager is responsible for arranging a risk assessment in the employee's home

    - Equipment

    Home equipment for work is provided and maintained by the employer

    - Access to an employee's home

    The employer may seek access to an employee's home; normally reasonable notice will be given, for example for routine maintenance of equipment or health and safety assessments; in certain instances, such as for urgent maintenance or health and safety purposes, urgent access may be sought.

    - Security of information

    This section covers issues of security and confidentiality of Kent County Council information

    - Travel allowance and subsistence

    Arrangements for travel allowances, travel expenses and subsistence are currently under review by the employer

    - Telephone

    The employer will install an additional phone line, and pay line rental and work call charges

    - Working at Home Allowance

    This states that the employer "will pay home-based workers an allowance, to compensate them for the cost of providing a work space at home".

    - Equality of Opportunity

    - Union Membership

According to James Butcher, who represents Kent's personnel department on the Work Smart group, a 'few hundred' of Kent's employees currently have some element of home-based working. They include James himself, who visits the office to attend meetings but otherwise undertakes much of his work from an office at home.

The Work Smart team are clearly concerned to ensure that flexible working is introduced in Kent by consensus. Some of this sensitivity may perhaps come from perceived difficulties previously within the authority: for example the imposition of hot-desking, as part of the telework pilot in 1996 involving educational psychologists, was not well received by the individuals involved. As one report produced shortly afterwards put it, it "gave some valuable lessons about the importance of working with staff rather than imposing change upon them." More generally, talk of moves towards flexible working has clearly been seen by some staff in the authority as simply a euphemism for office closures and reorganisation. Interestingly, Kent was at one stage following Surrey's lead with the use of the term 'Kent Workstyle' for its flexible working initiatives; this term has now been quietly dropped.

Instead the major focus of attention is currently on Kent First, the technology review programme. A possible extension of Kent First under consideration is the development of an integrated voice network for telephone calling. This would involve issuing all staff with their own personal telephone number, which they would keep throughout their career in the authority. Kent is also looking into the possibility of opening its own call centre. This is estimated to involve start-up costs of 300,000 and on- going costs of 250,000 per year, but would bring annual savings in two years time of 500,000. The call centre would replace a large number of current telephone enquiry numbers given to the public with a single enquiry line, and would also superseded existing switchboard operations. Initially, the call centre would absorb social services, adult education and library enquiries, with the service later extended to other departments.



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