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Remote Working: Does It Make Business Sense? By Sarah Fletcher


Smiling crowd
With 3.1 million UK employees now working from home, flexible working practices are increasingly commanding attention in employee benefits strategies. Work Wise UK is urging staff to work from home on Friday May 5, but does this make business sense? Sarah Fletcher investigates.

Meg Munn MP, DTI Minister for Women and Equality, claims remote working is "integral" to UK productivity, but do businesses agree? Do flexible work practices really "benefit us all"?

HR consultant Denise Neville highlights a key concern of business: “Many directors and small business owners do not support working from home. They believe it is harder to manage the employee and there is a possible lack of control.” HR manager Clare Shaw-Cross agrees; noting her company supports this option “where it has no detrimental effect on the business”. Employers, it seems, are not convinced by the DTI’s claims.

Implementing An Effective Home Working Strategy
How can company and employee ensure that both parties benefit from this flexible working practice? Neville claims sound performance management and effective communication are crucial: “Strong performance standards must be put in place, with regular contact and review of work against them.” Shaw-Cross’s HR strategy sees all types of working practices receiving the same productivity indicators: “We use a performance appraisal with objectives, same as if they were office based.”

Speaking exclusively to sister site, HR Zone, a Business Development Manager of a corporation employing around 24,000 UK staff suggested the home worker cannot shirk responsibility as employees act to police their remote colleagues:

“People joke that you can take it easy at home and not do any work and it is true that you have to be very self-motivated to be productive when working from home, but as there is always a lot of contact with the office during the day, co-workers can gauge for themselves whether or not you are working when at home.”

"It can be of great value if managed properly … and is welcomed by many employees."

If implemented effectively, the strategy can prove worthwhile. Neville adds: “It can be of great value if managed properly … and is welcomed by many employees.” Shaw-Cross, however, adds a wary note. Home working, she says, is useful as “an occasional flexible tool” to manage work-life balance; but warns: “disadvantages can occur generally if it is on a more full time basis”.

Janet Simkins, HR Director of London YMCA, shares this concern. The company supports remote working, but paradoxically, this is because it is rarely a viable option.

“At West London YMCA we have a working from home policy and we are therefore supportive of people’s request to work from home … I think we encourage it as a one-off situation for a specific piece of work because the Y is not the kind of place where working from home is an ongoing viable option – a client-focused charity needs its staff where their clients are.”

The Business Development Manager notes other logistical difficulties: “Network problems can be harder to sort out, as a member of the IT team cannot just pop over to your desk to see what is wrong. Terminal server connections are always much slower when working remotely.

“It is not always practical to work from home, as I receive faxes every day and sometimes it is much easier to look through documents yourself rather than having a colleague explain over the 'phone what has been faxed across.

“I prefer being in the office, as it is much easier getting things done, everything is to hand and the network connection is much quicker.”

Improving Work-Life Balance?Cup of Coffee

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber directly associates flexible working and employee satisfaction, saying: “With statistics showing that only one in seven UK employees is able to work from home occasionally and just one in ten is allowed to work flexibly, we still have a long, long way to go before a decent work/life balance can be achieved by everyone at work.” Despite similar claims by the DTI and CBI, such confidence in an improved work/life ratio is not universally shared.

Steve Roth, Managing Editor of leading accountancy publication AccountingWEB, suggests it actually worsens the balance between leisure and work time: “When you’re working from home, it’s very difficult to close your door at half past five.”

" “If you work at home you do not benefit from the casual day to day interaction with your peers. Groups form around sharing social space which you definitely miss out on."

Ed Mitchell, Editor of Knowledge Management publication KnowledgeBoard, adds that remote workers miss the social aspect of office life: “If you work at home you do not benefit from the casual day to day interaction with your peers. Groups form around sharing social space which you definitely miss out on.

“Informal knowledge sharing is also lost, and the vital serendipity moments people encounter as they discover things about each other does not happen. You can use virtual tools to work on this. If your team is entirely virtual anyway, you might as well work at home.”

HR manager Alison Whale agrees: “I would be able to work at times convenient to myself if I was at home … but I would still feel some conflict and would miss the social aspect of attending work.”

Is There A Solution?
At worst, remote working policies can be a logistical nightmare, create dire communication problems and prove challenging to monitor productivity and performance; yet as the proportion of employees working from home has soared by 2.3 million in the last ten years, it seems this policy is gaining support and the potential advantages to work/life balance and business productivity could make this an increasingly attractive option.


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