Skills gap hinders flexible working for SMEs

While small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are embracing flexible working, their ability to go one step further is being held back by a lack of technical knowledge, according to a report published today.

Just under three quarters (74 per cent) of small businesses offer some form of flexibility in working practices in terms of hours or location, but their inability to create a virtual office environment, where workers can be location independent and have greater autonomy in terms of planning and managing workloads, is hindering progress claims the BT Business-commissioned research by The Centre for Future Studies.

So what is stopping SMEs from moving beyond so-called first and second generation flexible working and on towards the next generation and the additional benefits on offer? The answer lies in an inability to fully integrate technology, according to the IT skills for flexible working study participants, with 62 per cent of respondents admitting that they lack the necessary IT skills and training to properly maximise their existing infrastructure.

"Our research shows that many SMEs are operating their IT systems on a low-tech and low-skill basis," said Dr Frank Shaw, foresight director at the Centre for Future Studies. "Even though the majority of SMEs have access to the technology required to sustain flexible working, many are failing to exploit the benefits because of a lack of skills. SMEs need to demonstrate their commitment to flexible working by arming their employees with the know-how to use the tools."

Lack of trained staff and the ability to facilitate additional training further exacerbates the problem. Three quarters of SMEs are neglecting to provide specific training for remote workers and some 88 per cent of managers are unfamiliar with remote working IT requirements and haven't received any advice on how to manage those working away from the traditional office environment.

Furthermore, a quarter of SMEs are unhappy with the basic IT skills set of their employees, with 41 per cent dissatisfied with workers' advanced IT skills and more than a third (37 per cent) claiming dissatisfaction with staff members' technical know-how.

"We are witnessing the emergence of flexible hours, flexible tasks and flexible locations. The technology to support this is available to businesses of all sizes and sectors and is delivering tangible business benefits," said Bill Murphy, managing director of BT Business. "We work with companies who recognise that by offering flexible working they can attract and retain the very best people to bring business success. SMEs need to embrace third generation flexible working to compete in attracting talented staff and to serve their customers to a high standard."

The report did highlight some positives, however. While third generation flexible working technology adoption is relatively low, mobile device and laptop usage is pretty high among SMEs, with the majority of those surveyed saying they make use of these connectivity options both inside and outside the office.

Maggie Holland

Maggie has been a journalist since 1999, starting her career as an editorial assistant on then-weekly magazine Computing, before working her way up to senior reporter level. In 2006, just weeks before ITPro was launched, Maggie joined Dennis Publishing as a reporter. Having worked her way up to editor of ITPro, she was appointed group editor of CloudPro and ITPro in April 2012. She became the editorial director and took responsibility for ChannelPro, in 2016.

Her areas of particular interest, aside from cloud, include management and C-level issues, the business value of technology, green and environmental issues and careers to name but a few.