Guest blog: Work Wise Week can inspire new business owners - By Steve Byrne, Chief Executive of Travel Counsellors.

Steve Byrne, chief executive of Travel Counsellors, the provider of bespoke leisure and corporate travel, discusses how flexible working can empower professionals to achieve their career and lifestyle goals.

Work Wise Week does an incredibly valuable job. With flexible working on the rise, businesses and individuals alike need to be aware of the enormous potential that adopting modern working practices can offer. In particular, it sheds light on a growing trend which has already had an impact not just on our business, but across the travel sector as a whole.

A recent report stated that the number of people working from home in the UK hit a record 1.5 million last year, up by 20 per cent since 2006. I suspect that is under stated given the number of people who also work from home on an ad hoc basis, but simply goes to show the scale of the labour market currently either running their own business, or flexing the traditional definition of employment.

We have seen that this model of home working applies itself particularly well to the travel sector. Even working from a bricks and mortar environment, many agents try to make themselves available for customers beyond the traditional hours of a retail shop or even that of a call centre. For us, working from home has been the foundation for many of our franchisees’ customer relationships and enables them to provide a better level of customer service and care.

There has also been an increasing trend for people setting up a shared office with other Travel Counsellors, away from their home environment. Fundamentally, whether on their own or in partnership, they work the hours to suit the needs of their business, family and customers. So, the bigger opportunity for those businesses that care about building relationships with customers and enabling people to have a better quality of life, is to encourage flexible working.

Supporting flexibility

Just because someone is self-employed and has taken the bold step to back themselves as an entrepreneur does not mean they need to feel on their own, unsupported or undervalued. People come to us from a wide range of backgrounds for a huge number of reasons, and we need to ensure that we are able to provide them with the tools to do their jobs and achieve their life goals at the same time.

In particular, I recently chatted to a new Travel Counsellor who had joined us because she had recently had a baby and requested flexible working, wanting to leave work a little earlier than previously, to meet the needs of the family. Working from home was just a conduit to her real need which was to flex her hours. With belief in herself, and with no salary or fixed income, as a Travel Counsellor, she is now fully empowered to choose what hours she wants to work and have her own business.

Equality of opportunity regardless of gender, as well as the increasing focus on mental health and wellbeing, support an environment that should encourage flexible working down to an individual level. This doesn’t mean working less hours, indeed many self-employed entrepreneurs will be working incredibly hard to meet the needs of their customers by delivering personalised, tailored travel planning and advice to customers, driven by people (and technology). We in turn should enable personalised working arrangements that meet the needs of the people delivering the service.  Their experience is just as important, if not more so and it is critical to the experience enjoyed by the end customer.

All businesses and people are imperfect, and we are no different, and we have some work still do in our support offices to be even better in this regard, but this is fundamental to the ability for businesses to drive growth.  Disruptive, technology based businesses such as ours understand that our future is completely dependent on our ability to search, find, attract, retain and develop talent, and there will always be fierce competition for this across the globe. 

 Technology, talent & trust

The old mentality of offices being a place to check whether someone is in work and working is overtaken by those disruptive businesses that see offices as a space to encourage collaboration and sharing.  Similarly, disruptive businesses use technology to empower customers and people to connect, being that face to face, over the phone or via digital channels and enable people to work flexibly, remotely and stay connected.

The competition for talent, which includes attracting and keeping the very best travel advisers, who are experts in their field, is not about whether you work from an office or home, or whether you are salaried or self-employed. It is and will be about to what degree you have a culture that enables and encourages you to be trusted. That includes the ability to flex your hours on a personal level and basis so you can have a career, respect your responsibilities to your colleagues and customers and be a decent parent and partner.

Fundamental to being able to physically be effective, though, is having access to the technology to enable you to work, connect and deliver regardless of the hours in the day and where you are in the world. So, an unerring commitment to do the right thing by the customer, genuine individual flexible working and a continuous investment in technology will go hand in hand in those disruptive travel businesses that truly value the benefit of the independent personal travel adviser and those that support them.

I promote flexible working for no other reason than it has been proven to provide people with the opportunity to achieve their career and business goals, while also allowing them to have a full and active family life and more should be done to promote this lifestyle more widely. Work Wise Week is a great start to this, and the awareness raised will hopefully allow many more people to work flexibly to achieve what is important to them.