Homework: Realities of a remote workforce (part 2)

homework-part2Realities of a remote workforce (part 2)

In part one of this series we looked at the practicalities and requirements of supporting someone who wants to work from home. In part two we look at the changes necessary within organisations who are considering supporting staff working from home. We also look at the how employees need to adapt their work habits to their new surroundings, and the benefits of flexible work environments for both employers and staff.

Traditional management models simply do not fit in the world of the telecommuter. Constant supervision is out of the question, so managers have no choice but to change the way work flow is maintained and monitored. Inertia is the enemy of any business, and there is often reluctance to change a perfectly good system to suit a staff member who wants to work from home. Employers need to start judging by task rather than time, to move from procedure-based to results-based management.

“Nearly a third of… managers polled said the lack of face-to-face contact was a major challenge for them. Managers ranked fear of not having control over employees and productivity issues as their top telework inhibitors. [However] more than three quarters admitted telecommuters were either as or more productive than office-based workers.”, writes Nic Paton in ‘ Working from home a sure-fire way to stall your career’.


Regular meetings, via phone, Skype or video conferencing technology, are vital to maintaining morale, providing social interaction for the homebound, and keeping an eye on progress. Employees need to make attendance at all meetings, either in person or by video or phone compulsory, and make sure the remote worker presents a report at each meeting. As part of the ground rules for working from home, employers should require a report every week to communicate improvement, any issues, and plans. To help the employee to keep in touch with colleagues and network regular “in office days” should also be a part of the ground rules . These can be augmented or replaced with “off-site” meetings in which all employees share plans, accomplishments and information. Most important of all is the correct use of an agreed ‘timeline and task’ template to mark progress on a regular basis. Monitoring progress against goals helps to keep employees who are out of the office environment up to speed with the projects they are working on.

“Many executives are caught between traditional workplace models and the changing demands of younger workers in a global economy. Granted, they have begun to embrace telecommuting as a way to give employees more flexibility and work/life balance, but when it comes to selecting someone for the executive team, company leaders get more traditional”, says Futurestep Chief Executive Officer Robert McNabb. “ Executives are also comfortable with telecommuting by mid-level managers, but for the next generation of leaders, they want to mentor them.”

Although, according to Gil Gordon, president of US company Gil Gordon Associates, “ Not everyone wants to be the big boss, some people put as much, or more, value on flexibility.”

The fact remains that forms of employment still require full time presence in an office or worksite. Many jobs are just not suitable for telecommuting and a recent report on the website www.management-issues.com stated that, ‘ The likelihood is that any major breakthrough on flexible working will for most people take the form of reduced hours, flexi-time or changes in shift patterns – all good for work life balance but largely developments in fairly mundane existing approaches to managing working time rather than a step toward an entirely new world of work’.

The shift from a structured office environment, along with all the office rituals, the networking opportunities and social interaction, can be traumatic if not properly planned and worked out before hand. Empowerment brings with it responsibility and accountability. The phase shift from being spoon fed and monitored to being deadline or target driven and answerable for failure takes a great deal of thought and skilled guidance by HR professionals and specialist consultants.

Time management takes on a whole different meaning when you work from home. Morning people can get a few good hours in before the daily noise and chaos of a household preparing for a busy day. Conversely, night owls can work deep into the night if time was taken away from their desks during the day to play with the children when they came home.

Even those who work from home need a routine. A regular work pattern helps to provide structure to the working day, although regular breaks can be a feature of such a schedule. Two hours of quality time with the children, taken when they get home from school, can easily be caught up elsewhere in the day or evening. Having the flexibility to take a whole day off in an emergency, or being able to work hard and get ahead of schedule on your own terms is the real beauty of working from home.

But beware, ‘research commissioned by BT suggests that the vision of mobile working as liberating British office workers from their desks and helping them regain control of their lives could turn into a nightmare unless organisations put in place policies and training around new working patterns and mobile technology.’ A recent report said, continuing ‘While more than eight out of 10 organisations in the UK provide staff with gadgets to promote flexible or remote working, BT’s research found that almost four out of 10 have not backed these up with formal ‘working from home’ policies while only a third track the impact of flexible working.’

Top tips for those working from home from www.tsuccess.dircon.co.uk include; plan your day the night before – know what you need to do and prioritise accordingly; have a timetable in front of you at all times and stick to it – don’t be tempted to fix things around the house because they seem more enjoyable than the job in hand; always remember, you’re at work and you owe it to yourself that you put in a full day – it’s amazing to many home-workers how tempting the ironing seems when you fancy a break or a distraction; and finally, you may feel that you need some form of a half-way routine to help you with the strains of working alone e.g., you may still feel the urge to go for a walk in the mornings to simulate some of the time you used to take commuting, but it is essential you start to work immediately you return.

Those who have flexible work hours and can spend quality time with their families and will be much happier, better settled and less vulnerable to stress, and the time saved on commuting can be put to better use working and a much better work/life balance is achieved. Happy, refreshed people create better quality output. But the benefits of a remote workforce extend beyond just the direct effects on staff who regularly telecommute.

From the business side, a remote workforce means less rental on office space and reduced overheads, less time lost to public transport failures (not such a problem in Hong Kong) and extreme weather conditions and improved business continuity in the event of a natural disaster, pandemic or act of terror. More importantly, a better work/life balance will stop employees from feeling the negative effects of stress, will help prevent burnout and knowledge, network and training loss.

MATISSE which stands for Mobile and Teleworking Initiative for a Smarter South East is a UK partnership project led by Hampshire County Council and funded by SEEDA (South East England Development Agency) that seeks to better understand the economic, social and environmental benefits of mobile and home working. Having recently finished a six-month measured Teleworking pilot, MATISSE released their findings which make some compelling arguments in favour of telecommuting.

Managers had reported 87% of participants with increased personal productivity. Participants had saved up to £80 (HK$1,200) per week in commuting costs and business mileage claims had reduced for 40% of participants. The daily commute was removed as a major source of stress, and personal well-being was much improved with 47.5% strongly agreeing their work-life balance was good (pre-pilot the figure was 12%). Of great significance in terms of retaining or recruiting staff was the statistic that showed the ‘very satisfied’ in their job percentage rise from 18.8% to 57.1% post-pilot.

The most staggering figures however came when the group computed the SE region-wide savings if the current number of home-based workers (380,000) should double in line with Government aims over the next three to five years. They found that in excess of £2.75 million pounds (HK$41,250,000) per month would be saved in fuel costs, driving time would be reduced by around 4 million hours per month, and that CO2 emissions would be cut by 8,750 tonnes per month.

While individual companies must monitor their own costs, and it is up to them how they motivate, monitor and ultimately treat their staff, wide ranging studies like those by MATISSE show a clear and broad benefit to society in creating a ‘work from home’ culture.

Not all of us will get the chance to work from home, the dominant management paradigm is still resistant to changes in work practices and to the wholesale empowerment of employees. A great deal has to change before telecommuting is regularly offered as an option to new recruits, despite the growing body of evidence showing the benefits to staff, management and companies of adopting and promoting a flexible workforce. But, for the lucky few who do get to live the dream, telecommuting is a refreshing change from traditional working models.

Source: HR Magazine

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