Council staff are to work at least part of their week from home as government cuts force Cheshire West and Chester Council to look for massive savings in rent, heating, lighting and business rates.
Working away from the office via computer and phone can be a convenience, even liberating, especially for those with young families or caring responsibilities.
Equally, others may miss the social aspect of work and find it isolating and demoralising, depending on personality and individual circumstances.
At the moment staff are moving out of CWaC’s prestigious HQ building which is being let to companies including Chester Race Company and Knights to generate much needed income for the cash-strapped authority.
But the authority-wide vision includes an allocation of just one desk per 1.8 people, requiring a combination of hot desk provision and home working – full or part-time depending on the role.
A big element of whether people will feel happy working from home must surely be whether they have a choice in the matter, so do they?
The council doesn’t respond with a simple yes or no but instead says: “Where someone felt that they couldn’t, whether for business or personal reasons, then they put in a request for a fixed desk. For anyone struggling to work remotely they will be supported by their manager to find a solution that suits them.”
And what about the extra costs incurred from having the heating and lighting on more often through the cold winter months, using broadband for work and any extra insurance premiums? The authority will surely pick up the tab? Well, it depends. Full time home workers will be compensated in line with HMRC rates – £4 per week or £18 per month for employees paid monthly.
But if you only work part-time from home then it’s tough as far as the Labour -led authority is concerned, which doesn’t seem in keeping with leader Jeremy Corbyn’s desire to create a fairer world.
This is justified with the line that ‘savings in travelling costs and time saved in commuting to the office for the average employee is estimated to be greater than the impact on domestic bills’. Whether the employee who normally walks into the office from home will see it that way is another matter.
Having the right computer equipment at home, a reliable broadband connection and an IT support system is crucial to avoiding unnecessary techno stress.
And in a mammoth question and answer exchange shared with The Chronicle, several people raised the question of whether using laptop computers at home, with their smaller screens, will cause extra eye strain. This gets short shrift from the powers that be who consider laptops no different to desktop computers but with the advice that all computer users take regular screen breaks of up to 10 minutes each hour.
Employees are also expected to provide their own desk and chair when working at home.
Others queried having to travel further to, say, the Ellesmere Port office when traditionally they had been based in Chester.
One person asked: “Whilst Ellesmere Port is only approximately 20 minutes by car, for those without their own transport, the bus can take up to an hour. This will eat into working time and/ or flexi time over the year. There are also difficulties with unreliable public transport. This could have a greater impact on junior/lower paid members of staff who do not own a car.”
The council's response: “It is important to remember that when teams commence Agile Working, although the contractual office base may be EP, it is not anticipated that staff would be required to work every day from that location. Many staff will in fact benefit from not having to travel each day with the option to work from home or some other location closer to home. This will reduce travel time, parking costs and the council’s carbon footprint.”
It sounds like the manager has it mind some staff will create a base at their local Costa where they can use the free wi-fi.
Councillor David Armstrong , cabinet member for legal and finance, insists the new way of working is a win-win for everyone. Staff ‘remain at the heart of this programme’ but it will also save money for the council and lead to improved services for residents.
He said: “The council has been reviewing its accommodation portfolio over the past several months in order to develop a more modernised way of working that is fit for purpose in the future, to move services closer to the residents we serve, and to make a saving of £2.4 million by 2020 by reducing our corporate accommodation.
“Working in an agile, flexible and mobile way is something that many organisations, including other councils, are working towards. The introduction of flexible working across our workforce will mean improved services for residents. By spending less on corporate buildings we are able to spend more on supporting vulnerable people and safeguarding children.
“There is evidence to suggest that flexible working interventions that increase worker control and choice, are likely to have a positive effect on the health and wellbeing of individuals. Some of our own teams have been working in this way since 2012 and have reported a 30% increase in productivity, as well as improvements to their work/life balance caused by a reduction in cost and time of travelling to a fixed place of work.
"Working flexibly has also allowed some people to work around caring responsibilities and be able to do the school run which is important to them.
“Our staff remain at the heart of this programme and have been involved at every stage to help shape its design and success. We have worked hard to address and cater for each individual’s needs.”
Trade union Unison doesn’t seem to have a problem with it either.
Maria Moss, regional organiser for UNISON North West, said: “All the trade unions have been involved in the consultation over the new working arrangements and we have raised concerns about the potential impact of these changes.
"Some of our members have told us that they like to work from home but we are conscious that for others the changes could potentially cause difficulties. We remain vigilant and are encouraging members who are experiencing any problems to raise them with us so that we can pursue them with the council.”