Working remotely at least part of the time has become far more common because of the availability of suitable technology. By 2011 around 59% of UK companies offered some kind of teleworking. It might be used to save office costs; or because an individual lives too far from the physical workplace to commute comfortably on a daily basis; or where you need time and quiet to concentrate.
An interesting story broke last week about remote working. The Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, sent out a memo which proposes to ban remote working for her employees from June. Why, when you might think they were the one industry for which remote working was suited?
The decision has reverberated round the world. Most of the commentary has been critical, particularly as regards the effect it might have on parents of young children.
Yahoo is struggling and one of the reasons given for the change is that greater face-to-face interaction might lead to greater creative dynamism. Companies need to be creative to survive. While there is a school of thought that says remote working attracts creative types. Others say that that workers are less innovative if they work at home. Interacting with others face to face tends to produce greater creative output.
The ban on remote work sparked backlash (amongst others, head of Virgin, Richard Branson wrote in his blog that making the change undermined the trust that staff would get their work done wherever, without supervision, as working is no longer 9-5). but other tech companies like Google and Facebook also expect their employees to work at their offices.
Does remote working work? As ever there are pros and cons. If the right technology is in place, there is regular communication and the right balance between home and office working, many employees will work responsibly and well.
Unfortunately, some abuse the trust. When Microsoft commissioned a survey of 1,500 workers across 15 European nations in 2011, it found that 48% of respondents did not trust colleagues to work productively when they are away from the office. A number of former Yahoo employees who had supported Ms Mayer, confirmed this.
In the UK, BT was one of the first UK companies to embrace remote working in a big way. About 69,000 of its 89,000 staff are equipped to work flexibly; approximately 9,400 are home workers. BT said this led to benefits like accommodation savings, reduced sick absence and increased productivity. It certainly sounds great for employees. At this stage (remember HR is a business service and should be adding value to the bottom line) let’s ask about benefits for customers? No evidence has been put forward in this discussion (and this is important, I would suggest). From a personal point of view I cannot say that I ever found BT to be even remotely customer focussed or responsive to problems they have often created and would rather go back to tins and strings than work with them. In the past they have cut off my phone for no reason and even given my number away without my knowledge or permission, as well as all the usual problems of just not having service and then just refused to deal with it.
Flexible working is important in modern workplaces. Life is complicated for many employees and employers do well to be sensitive and allow flexibility in some circumstances. Allowing flexibility can help to recruit and retain. But as well as helping employees and should at the same time achieve business benefits. It has to work for both parties.
There are a number of factors for success.
There has to be a reasonable level of trust between the parties. You have to trust that they will work sensibly and productively for you and they need to trust you to keep them properly informed and advised on workplace matters. You should measure productivity in the regular workplace, so why wouldn’t you do the same for those working remotely.
Do have clear rules about homeworking. For example, if a person wants to work at home so that he or she can look after a child, that’s not work. There has to be clarity about what’s expected in the way of hours of work and availability. Make sure that a suitable home working environment is available. For many businesses it would not be acceptable for the employee to work from the kitchen table and to hear a baby roaring in the background when you call in. Homeworking requires you to do a safety risk assessment.
A balanced approach is important. Recognise that sometimes flexible working (including remote working) is the answer to a problem. It may not be suitable as a permanent solution, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Technology means that you can work closely together, even when physically apart. Harness and use it to your advantage.
If you do use home working on a regular basis make sure that managers set a good example. Everyone has to be fairly easily contactable and transparent in the work they are doing from home.
Good leadership comes from the top, which means you have to be seen and heard in the flesh and in the office. Marissa Mayer had a point when she argues that you’re more likely to problem solve creatively when you’re interacting face-to-face, so interaction with colleagues, especially at the senior level is really important.
Use time spent in the office effectively. Time well spent generates a sense of energy and purpose which helps remote workers feel more engaged while working from home. As part of this plan work so that teams and their members know who’s doing what and when.
Where home working is a regular occurrence, tell clients how it works. When they understand the arrangement and are confident they can reach their main contact when they need to, they don't object.
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