This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Flexible Working, 1999
How the Nationwide Building Society is implementing telework
The Nationwide, much the largest of Britains remaining building societies, is exploring ways in which home-based working may be able to benefit both its business and its staff. Earlier this year (1999) the societys Personnel and Development division produced a substantial homeworking pack, available for managers and staff to consult. The Nationwide currently has about eighty employees who are formal homeworkers, primarily in three main areas technology development, mortgage lending control and telephone assessment of job applicants.
Homeworking is seen by the Nationwides corporate personnel team as one element of its broader flexible working policy. This policy, which was first introduced ten years ago, includes a range of possible working arrangements, including termtime working, reduced hours working and annualised hours. Procedures for homeworking began to be considered from about 1993 when specific health and safety guidelines were drawn up, as part of the Nationwides response to the requirement to develop risk assessment mechanisms. But recently there has been recognition that more work was needed by corporate personnel to flesh out the societys homeworking policy and practices.
The current resource pack is the end-product of a working group on the topic, which began meeting in the Autumn of 1998. The group, led by Pauline Henderson from corporate personnel, also included colleagues from other parts of the Nationwide: a senior technology specialist, a corporate space consultant, a senior health and safety adviser, an insurance risks manager, a representative of the Nationwide Group Staff Union, and two colleagues from operational parts of the Personnel and Development division.
The packs Guidelines for Homeworking distinguishes between three types of home-based working within the Nationwide, defined as follows:
There are similar sections to be completed covering the character of the job holder, the home environment, and the job being undertaken. Finally the line manager is asked to undertake a cost/benefit analysis for each potential home-based worker. Questions to be answered here include not only the cost of capital items of equipment and on-going costs associated with homeworking but also, for example, the cost of any additional time the manager, or other employees, need to spend on the homeworkers needs. An estimate of the benefits accruing from increased output and reduced central office costs is also required.
If some line managers might be tempted to take one glance at this form and instantly send the potential homeworker straight back to their office desk, Pauline Henderson points out that managers do have access to the service of their own personnel consultant to assist them in this work. She accepts that the present procedure may err on the side of bureaucracy, though she adds that the policy is designed to evolve in the light of experience. Homeworking arrangements approved by line managers are then forwarded to the senior manager for their endorsement.
The procedure for approving a request to homework also includes a detailed risk assessment questionnaire. This is initially self-administered by the employee. It covers questions on the exact layout of any PC monitors and keyboards to be used at home, on the work desk and chair, and on the overall work environment. Employees are also asked to take and submit a photograph of the home workstation. Where the results of questionnaire appear to raise health and safety concerns, the Nationwides estates division may undertake a site visit to the home. The homeworking guidelines add, "There may be circumstances where potential risks or hazards are considered too high for a formal Homeworking arrangement to be agreed."
The homeworking pack in addition includes data protection guidelines (which among other things cover procedures for confidential waste disposal at home) and a briefing note on the likely tax implications of working from home. Finally, the pack also includes other documents and publications from Nationwides Personnel and Development division, including the booklet Working with VDUs, one on Personal Security and Safety and the societys recently adopted safety policy for employees who find themselves working alone.
The involvement of Nationwides staff union in the preparation of the homeworking pack led to an agreement to introduce a new Homeworking Allowance, intended to assist in meeting domestic heating and lighting costs. The allowance, which is paid only where homeworking has been formally approved, is currently £104 pa.
The work associated with the production of the pack has enabled Nationwide to look again at those parts of the organisation where home-based working has already been in operation. There are two main initiatives here. A small number of employees, currently six, work from home as part of the retail recruiting team. Their work is to undertake an initial informal telephone interview with potential new Nationwide employees who are applying, for example, for branch or call centre positions. This is the first stage of sifting job applicants, prior to face-to-face interviews.
Because of the irregular nature of the Nationwides recruitment needs, the home-based interviewers work on annualised hours contracts. The team includes a mixture of full-time and part-time staff. They attend a monthly team meeting, held in Northampton (as a consequence of the Nationwide/Anglia merger of 1987, the Nationwide has two major office complexes, in Swindon and Northampton).
The Nationwides major use up to now of home-based working, however, has been in the area of lending control or, in lay terms, the work of contacting and chasing up customers who are in mortgage arrears. Like all mortgage lenders, the Nationwide has its share of borrowers who get into financial difficulties, and who potentially could cause the organisation to lose the capital investment it has made.
During the most gloomy times at the start of the 1990s when mortgage arrears were a serious national problem, the Nationwides home-based staff engaged in lending control work numbered as many as 130, organised into fifteen teams. Fortunately, the improved property climate now has enabled the Nationwide to reduce its staff complement here substantially, so that the current number is about 40. They are organised in three regions (South, Midlands and North), each comprising two teams.
Taking the Northern region as an example, the two teams are made up in total of sixteen employees, all full-time. Together they cover a geographical patch which stretches from the north of Scotland to Gloucester, taking in both Wales and Northern Ireland. All are contractually based at home, although their work involves a considerable amount of travel in order to meet mortgage borrowers in their own homes. Typically, six home visits may be undertaken in a days work.
The team members are each equipped with laptop PCs and modems and mobile phones, and are also supplied with printers and items of office equipment as appropriate for their home offices. The laptops enable them to access the Nationwides corporate computer network both from home and (via fixed phone lines) when they are out in the field with customers, though the Nationwide is not currently using cellular data communications. This enables the staff to access customer details; it also means that they have access to e-mail and to the societys intranet. There is a set procedure for filing daily reports of the customers contacted, and considerable work has recently been undertaken on the management information systems in place to ensure that appropriate management data can be extracted readily from all these reports submitted.
Line management of the two northern teams is undertaken by two team leaders. Full team meetings are held monthly, usually at the Nationwides centres in Sale or Liverpool. According to Ged Petch, one of the team leaders, one-to-one meetings also take place regularly with each team member, either in their homes or at a Nationwide office. These meetings typically provide an opportunity to go through the case work currently being handled, to discuss the outcomes achieved in each case. "I also go out with them to undertake a formal assessment of their work, a minimum of once every six months but in practice every 2-3 months," Ged Petch says. "There are about twenty items we look at the way they carry out interviews, organise their work, and so on. We go through the list, and grade them for each, and this feeds into the annual appraisal and also into their training requirements."
On a day-to-day basis, contact tends to be undertaken by e-mail and by telephone. "If they have a particular case they want to discuss, they would ring me. Otherwise I would expect to ring them about once a week," Ged Petch says. "A lot of information flows down over the e-mail network," he adds.
As a security precaution, all staff have to file daily worksheets detailing each home visit they are making, and the estimated time when they will arrive back home. They are also required to report in to confirm that they are indeed safely home. The information is held by Nationwides Group Security, who in the event of safety concerns have procedures for notifying the police. The team members are also issued with panic alarms.
The development of the Nationwides homeworking packs has enabled the lending control teams to reexamine aspects of their use of home-based workers, and in some respects to formalise their practices. For example, a more rigorous workstation assessment programme began during 1999, designed to ensure that staff working from home are using ergonomically appropriate facilities. According to Simon Coop, controller, secured operations, this did bring to light some unacceptable practices: "We had one individual who was working off a window sill the workstation assessment put a stop to that," he says.
In the autumn of 1999, a third home-working programme began to get underway in the Nationwide, in its Technology division. The programme, part of a broader Changing Workstyles project, involves fifteen employees engaged in Technology Development, including analysts, programmers and mainframe coders.
These staff began working from home in September 1999. Each house has been equipped with a Home Highway (or, where BT Highway was not available, an ISDN) line, and unusually for the Nationwide the employees have also been provided with direct Internet access from their own desktops. (Direct Internet access is still subject to piloting elsewhere in the organisation). Their old desks in the Nationwides main Swindon office have been reallocated to other staff, but a hotdesking area has been created instead, with six workstations available via a pre-booking system. According to Simon Marlow, project manager, the aim is to enable staff to be as flexible as they need to undertake their work, though he says that typically a worker would be expected to work from home for about three days a week, and attend the office for the remaining two days.
Simon Marlow and his colleagues have taken considerable steps to ensure that the PCs available at the hotdesking area have identical functionality to those being used at home. A telephony package Telewhere also enables calls to be routed transparently to phones at home or in the hotdesking area, as appropriate.
The homeworking programme attracted considerable interest from members of Nationwides Technology Development team, and the fifteen employees engaged in the programme were selected from about forty initial volunteers. Simon Marlow says that any future scaling-up will need to address questions of IT support for remote workers.
The Changing Workstyles project in the Technology Division has also launched a second programme, covering about thirty members of the Business Improvement team, also based in Swindon. The team are currently in cramped accommodation, and the programme has involved creating a hotdesking area and arranging for desks no longer to be allocated only to one individual. What sounds a relatively modest reform has involved extensive work ensuring that each PC offers identical computing facilities and installing TeleWare telephony to enable telephone calls to follow team members round the office. A pool of laptops has also been made available to be used by staff who undertake occasional and informal working from home.
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