Forming a major relationship with your slippers and This Morning’s competition time are just some of the indulgent delights enjoyed by that strange breed of salary suckers, the home worker; but is the reality as shiny and how do managers conquer that pesky trust issue? Annie Hayes reports.
In May the UK celebrated its second annual National Work from Home Day, an indication in itself of just how far UK Plc has come in accepting this as a valid and valuable way of working.
According to the Labour Force Survey undertaken quarterly by the Office for National Statistics, over 3.4 million people, 12 per cent of the working population, regularly or permanently work from home. In the last 10 years, that figure has increased by a fifth. That means that more than half a million additional people now work from home.
So why are organisations like BT, Lloyds TSB Bank, Nationwide and Britannia so mad for it? And can they trust their workers to surface from under their duvets without Big Brother watching?
Counting the pennies
It’s fairly clear what’s in it for the home worker. After all who’d miss sniffing the armpit of some stranger whilst on the misery line to work, the long haul out of bed at the crack of dawn, the frosty air conditioning or the endless office politics? Not to mention the ball and chain of being shackled to a desk at dedicated hours and laying over your life Monday to Friday to the corporate world?
It is less clear, however, what is in it for business. After all it would be so much easier to put everyone in the same box, ahem office, and squeeze that productivity out of them.
Telecoms giant BT appears to have home working down to a fine art. After all, with 11,500 permanent home workers under their wings, out of a total of 104,000, they can’t be in it just for the laughs.
Michael Jarvis, a senior spokesperson for BT, says that it all comes down to pennies and pounds.
“[The home workers’] increased productivity adds another £6m-£7m of value to BT’s bottom line. Whilst another 64,000 are equipped to work flexibly. Full-time home workers save BT £6,000 a year each. That makes a total of a £69m a year saving for BT, which is significant even for a company of our size. Our experience is that flexible working practices help workers to be more focused and motivated.”
Michael Jarvis, senior spokesperson for BT
Balancing the accounts, however, isn’t the only motivator. Dave Gartenberg, HR Director for Microsoft UK, says that far from being a ‘nice-to-have’, flexible working is central to how the business operates.
“We actively encourage this across the company. People recognise that there are real benefits both for the business and for our staff if people have the tools and the options to work flexibly. We’ve been investing heavily in our manager community to increase their capability to both drive the business and to increase the employee experience. One of the issues we’ve focused on is eradicating the antiquated belief that one must see their employees to know they are productive. A recent Cranfield University School of Management study of Microsoft employees showed that 90 per cent make use of flexible working practices.”
And according to Jarvis, there are further business benefits to be found. Throwing open the doors to home working has enabled BT to tap into a pool of talent that would otherwise be ignored.
“It helps BT to draw from a wider pool of talent including lone parents, who are excluded from work by a strict nine to five day. There are currently 750,000 lone parents, average age 37, who are willing and able to work, but often need flexibility to get back into the workforce. And a diverse workforce will reflect your diverse customer base.”
Peter Thomson, Director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College also believes that offering home/mobile or flexible working options is crucial if the UK is going to successfully tap into the new labour pool of younger workers. “The younger generation are used to forming relationships using a variety of technologies including text messaging, skype, instant messaging, mobile communications etc – they then come to work and want to know why they can’t do their work in a similar fashion.”
Organisations are slowly catching onto the fact that the rules of engagement in the jobs market are as fragile and as transient as customers’ loyalty. And to get the best on board means offering flexibility, a carrot that is impressively competing with cash when it comes to luring talent.
Impact on absence
Businesses are also finding that flexible working helps cut down on unauthorised sickies. Sue Jex, head of employee relations and diversity at HSBC says: “We do believe it has an impact on absence. There aren’t many employees who’d fight their way into work on a draughty train with a sniffle or cold but they might be willing to work from home.”
Jex also believes that cutting the commute boosts productivity. “It’s quite a distance to our head office and cutting this out makes an enormous difference to individual’s work/life balance.”
Thomson agrees. “If you can work flexibly, employees for example can work at home in the morning to avoid the commute, work quietly doing their emails first thing and then go into the office. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”
Peter Thomson, director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College.
Flexible working may also prove beneficial in reducing the problems associated with presenteeism, the growing trend to turn up to work even when ill. Someone that is too ill to come into work but is well enough to get online from the remote environment can satisfy both issues via flexible working.
Other employers have also found that workers are more loyal and engaged where flexible working options are offered.
Helena Peacock, HR director of publisher the Penguin Group says that the company takes requests for home working on a case-by-case basis and in the summer it offers a compressed hours scheme: “We have summer working when employees can take off Friday afternoons provided they make up the time during the week after.” She believes schemes such as these breed improved engagement.
On paper the business benefits are clear to see. But how is home working implemented in reality? And how do managers overcome that trust issue – so very important for marriages and teeth extractions – the glue, after all that forms the backbone of the home working nirvana.
Jex says that HSBC operate home working on three levels:
“There are casual workers who request some quiet time or want to work on a project from home on an occasional basis, one or two days a week. Structured workers have a hot desk or desk in the office they can use but work from home two to three days a week and then there are full time workers.”
Jex remarks that since the uptake of structured working has increased, managers have had to rethink their measures.
“There is absolute clarity over goals and measures. We’ve spent a lot of time on objective setting and putting measures in place even for subjective issues. Some managers have found it difficult and uncomfortable to deal with workers that aren’t visible.”
But Thomson challenges this idea: “A lot of people say to me, if you can’t see someone how do you know they are working? I say to them if you can see someone, how do you know they are working?”
Like Jex, Thomson believes that as long as you can measure work jobs can be done flexibly. A sentiment that Gartenberg agrees with.
“How managers handle flexible working is key to its success. So our performance management system reflects our approach to flexible working and is similar to what most people would call ‘Management By Objectives’. It’s not about face time or activity, it’s about impact. As long as an employee manages their interdependencies, they have whatever flexibility they need to achieve their commitments.
He adds: “Essentially we treat our employees like the responsible, intelligent adults that they are, and they deliver as you would expect. Additionally, we provide resources to help managers and staff. Our flexible working portal, for example, really helps people understand what is expected of them and how to manage flexible working effectively.”
Thomson says there is a lot of work to be done in training managers how to manage remote working teams. “Less then 20 per cent of managers do any formal training of how to manage remote workers. The biggest hurdle is getting managers to let go. Managers do have to adapt, they have to make sure meetings happen face to face and there are good review processes in place.”
An element of common sense must be employed if home working is to be successful. Peacock comments: “When people work a day or two from home: we have to trust they will do their jobs, and of course this is something their managers have to keep an eye open for. We don’t allow mothers of small children to do any work from home unless we know they have childcare on those days.”
Helena Peacock, HR Director, The Penguin Group.
Once managers learn to trust can that home working utopia be achieved?
One-size fits all?
Jex believes that home working isn’t the answer for everyone and every type of job. “Not all of our roles can be worked at home. Take our call centre operatives for example or people working in the branches. These customer facing roles are difficult to outsource to the home. In these instances we have tried to come up with new options. We offer flexibility in terms of time for example rather then location.”
Peacock also believes that it isn’t suitable for every job. “Although it’s impossible to generalise, the type of work we expect our creative people to do is best accomplished with a team around, rather than individually at home. They need to bounce ideas off each other and although perfectly good work could be done from home it is likely to be better if done in the office, so that’s what we prefer.”
Gartenberg says it doesn’t have to be all or nothing: “Clearly there are some jobs where flexible working isn’t appropriate. Nevertheless, most jobs can apply a degree of flexibility – and there’s probably more flexibility that could be effectively exercised than most people seem to think. At Microsoft we believe that flexible working genuinely benefits our people and our business. Organisations need to work out what is practical and what will ensure that the work is still done efficiently.”
The future of home working
Thomson believes that the home working phenomenon is something that will not go away. Not only does the legislation introduced in April 2003, giving parents of children under six, or parents of disabled children under 18, the right to request to work flexibly lean itself further towards home working solutions but so does the technology that backs it up.
In July 2005, the Office of National Statistics tested the waters to see how far employers had come in breaking down the traditional concept of working nine to five in a fixed location. They found that awareness of flexible working had significantly increased since the right was introduced. Almost a quarter of employees who were eligible to make a request had done so in the past two years. Whilst the rate of employer refusal of requests had almost halved since the right was introduced.
Working on the move, twenty-four seven, is the way the work of the future is going. Future generations transitioning into the labour market are setting the trend by demanding more flexible ways of working as the technologies they have become accustomed to in education and/or at home become their standard benchmark for the workplace too.
Technology allows us to work at a time and place that is convenient to us. Email allows us to work asynchronously (not at the same time) or synchronously (at the same time) via instant messaging for example. The possibilities are endless. It is clear that home working isn’t an option for all types of worker. Organisations, however, are embracing the challenges by thinking up new structures that combine elements of flexibility with more traditional ways of working. And for those managers that can learn to trust, attractive business benefits can be reaped and enjoyed too.