Small Business editor of the NZ Herald

Small Business: Flexible working - Keri Johnston, Irricon Resource Solutions

This week, Small Business editor Caitlin Sykes talks to business owners about flexible working.
Keri Johnston, a director of Irricon Resource Solutions.
Keri Johnston, a director of Irricon Resource Solutions.

Keri Johnston is a director of Irricon Resource Solutions. The environmental consultancy has 14 staff based throughout Canterbury and North Otago, and most work from home.

How did you come to set up a business with staff working flexibly?

I had been working in Christchurch for Environment Canterbury, but with a toddler and a newborn I decided I needed to change the way I worked. I'm also married to a farmer, and we were moving fairly regularly trying to get ahead in farming, but each time we moved we ended up further away from an urban centre. I loved what I did, and it made sense for me financially to keep working but with two young children and a new farm, commuting a long distance to Christchurch each day wasn't really appealing. So I made the call to work from home and on my own terms.

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Originally I approached another consultant in Timaru who I knew was really busy and worked from home for him, but he got bought out by a big corporate that wasn't so sympathetic to someone working remotely.

So in 2007 I joined forces with two other consultants in similar situations and we set up Irricon. Ultimately we got ourselves in a position where we had more work than we could deal with between us.

We all worked from home and had a model that worked really well, so we thought if we were going to take on staff they didn't need to work in an office either.

We all knew people who were in circumstances like ours' - who had kids, were living rurally and didn't go back to work for the reasons we hadn't - so we slowly built up a workforce to the point where we now have 14 staff. They can do as many or as few hours as they want and from home, so they're in complete control of their workload and for that reason we've got a really good business.

So does everyone in the business work remotely?

All bar two, who by choice work in an office in Timaru. But our consultant there works 7.30am to 2.30pm so he can pick up his kids from school. Our flexibility relates to the hours people work as well. For example, one of our consultants lives on a big sheep station and she's just spent a couple of days tailing, so she just adjusts her workload and calendar around that. One of the benefits of working that way is when our staff are at work they're really productive and focused on what they do. They're highly chargeable and they don't have much down time.

What practical measures have helped make this work for you as a business?

In terms of hardware we all operate with laptops and cellphones, and all our software systems are web based, so we can all access the same information. Our calendars are also linked and we have Skype meetings together every fortnight, just as you'd have a staff meeting in the office.

Do you have opportunities to get together in person?

We always pull everyone together mid-year to work through things we need to attend to as a business, and we always take everyone away for a night around Christmas time. This year we went to Tekapo and spent the afternoon driving Segways, then had a night out with partners to celebrate the year.

We also have offices in Ashburton and Timaru, so if someone needs space for a meeting they book those and float in and out as required.

What are some of the challenges you've encountered working this way?

Probably the biggest challenge for us in recent years has been getting the right systems in place. When we first started doing this it was probably a bit more ad hoc, and as our staff numbers grew it became more evident more thought needed to go into our systems. We've really refined those in the past few years and they're now fantastic.

Our whole ethos has been 'why should location and circumstance be a barrier to someone having a professional career?'. We all train so long and hard to do what we do that it almost seems unfair to have to drop out of it just because of where you live or that you might have children. People have to start thinking a bit more outside the square now, and I'd like to see what we're doing become the norm rather than the exception. We've shown you can have a really successful and competitive business working this way if you have the right people and systems around you.

- NZ Herald

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