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Homeworking during the Olympics

2012 is set to be a big year for London. The Summer Olympics and the Queen's Jubilee are expected to deliver a boost to the economy, with tens of thousands of visitors due to descend on the capital city to enjoy these grand events.

The tourism industry should enjoy a spike in income during the summer months thanks to these events. Furthermore, over the longer-term, other businesses are predicted to benefit from the increased levels of exposure that should result from the large number of overseas visitors.

But can London really copy with so many people? During the Olympic Games themselves, an extra three million are expected to be undertaken, pushing the capacity of the city's transport network to its limits as up to 800,000 spectators and 55,000 competitors, officials, staff and media members make their way between events.

Locals have already been asked to avoid the tube where possible and to take alternative means of transport around their city. So-called Boris Bikes are likely to be popular and city officials have also called upon Londoners to walk where possible to free up transport for those who don't know their way around the city.

While these demands might be possible for those living and working within the same area, commute time in the London area is often an hour or more, making it rather unreasonable to expect someone to undertake a journey usually done by train on foot or by bike.

So if the worst-case scenario proves true and tourists and Olympics attendees fill public transport to capacity, how will Londoners get to work and how will London businesses survive?

The first alternative in cases where walking and cycling is not suitable is to introduce flexible working hours to allow commuters to come into the office at quieter times, reducing the pressure on the transport system. However, many companies operate on a 9 to 5 basis, making it difficult to rejig working hours for large numbers of staff.

In these situations, the next option on the cards - and one being picked up on by a large number of businesses based in the capital - is to allow staff to work from home. While the benefits of introducing a work from home scheme are numerous, unfortunately, it looks like not everyone is aware of the planning and preparation required when implementing such a decision.

Research conducted by the MWB Business Exchange questioned 430 firms in London located in potential hotspots for travel disruption and found a serious lack of preparation for the Olympics in particular. The study found that 30 per cent of companies have no contingency plans in place for the Games, despite the fact that another survey by Deloitte highlighted the fact that 42 per cent of companies are worried about staff availability during this period.

Yet just 11 per cent are planning to allow staff to work from home, while 30 per cent intend on allowing their employees to work flexible hours, according to MWB.

One of the problems could be the fact that companies are leaving it to the last minute to organise plans for working from home. While many might see it as an attractive option, they are yet to get their heads around the necessary technology and network upgrades needed to facilitate the change.

Kathryn Hurt, head of Olympics with MWB, concurred, noting that the stress tests being conducted on businesses' networks as late as May confirm that although companies are “slowly waking up to the fact that they need to prepare”, it could be “too little, too late”.

Fortunately not everyone has left things to the last minute and there have been some impressive developments in homeworking prompted by the Olympics. O2, for example, has already conducted a successful trial at its Slough headquarters, during which more than 2,500 people worked away from the main office.

This was achieved through careful planning and the implementation of strengthened networks and upgraded collaboration technology – in O2's case, Microsoft's Lync. Upgrading the firm's Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology was also found to be an important step in ensuring that the homeworking trial ran smoothly, especially as the increase of VPN users compared with an average day was found to be around 155 per cent, with a reported increase in VPN data of about 110 per cent.

As the UK economy slips back into recession, some companies have baulked at the thought of forking out for IT infrastructure investment during this difficult financial time. But the benefits of implementing a stable network with the facility for people to work from home will be felt long-after the Olympics.

Ben Dowd, business director for O2, explained how his firm sees the situation: “The success of O2's experiment extends much further than just allowing some of the workforce to stay at home and work. It proves that with the right thinking and planning, even the largest organisations can protect themselves from the most severe disruptions to their business.”

He added that the “right preparation and communication” can change “conservative presenteeism-based attitudes to work that can be changed, with great benefits for both managers and staff”.

We're well aware of the benefits of working from home for big and small companies and it is becoming increasingly clear that these extend to areas including the environment, increased business productivity and higher employee job satisfaction.

But if companies want to enjoy these improvements in the long-run and navigate their way through the Olympic Games as smoothly as possible, time is running out to implement a work from home strategy. O2 required four weeks of “intense preparation across the business” for its one successful work from home trial day earlier this year, while the Civil Service has been making improvements to its networks and systems for months, with tests conducted back in February and continuing in the run-up to the events just to ensure that everything is in place for the Olympic Games.

Ultimately, London companies will need to seriously rethink their attitude towards homeworking in light of the Olympics or else accept that they are taking an unnecessary and potentially damaging chance with their business. But what we would hope to see is a carefully planned and executed strategy for homeworking that, while it may have been designed with the Olympics in mind, will offer businesses and employees the opportunity to work from home on a flexible base long into the future.

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