Home working: The future of employment?

By J&C Team

Homeworking is becoming increasingly popular for a variety of reasons – cutting down on unnecessary commuting, being on hand for emergencies, being able to create the working conditions that suit you best…

The Workingmums.co.uk annual survey shows that homeworking is the form of flexible working which would most encourage women to work full time after having children, with 66% of the over 2,500 women polled stating this.

Survey after survey shows that homeworkers are more productive, working on average 24 days extra year than their contracted hours, according to one study, and take less time off for sickness. In the lead-up to the Olympics last year Telefónica UK did a massive flexible working experiment, closing down its head office in Slough meaning all staff had to work remotely.

The result, says Lara Warburton, Telefónica UK’s People Policy Manager, was that 88% of employees said they were at least as productive working remotely as in the office and 36% said they were more productive. The one-day exercise also saved Telefonica UK employees and the business thousands of pounds, mainly in commuting costs, but also office overheads. Staff were able to spend more time with their families, sleep in or have more time for hobbies.

Yet the image still persists of homeworkers being shirkers who sit around all day watching daytime tv.

A recent study of 1,000 UK workers by video communications company UCi2i found that 25% believe those who work from home ‘cheat the system’ [only 5% do apparently], with 84% saying they are uncomfortable with their colleagues not working physically alongside them.

Interestingly, companies who use homeworking extensively say that the problem is precisely the opposite of skiving – because of the proximity of home and work life staff find it difficult to turn off. BT managers are told to look out for signs of homeworkers overworking.

Part of the distrust between office and homeworkers is lack of communication. Because people are not in the office and seen to be working their colleagues think they are swinging the lead. However, technology makes remote communication more possible every day. Lara Warburton’s team, for instance, is completely remote and based in a wide range of locations from Dublin to the south coast. She is a homeworker and is used to conducting virtual meetings via video conferencing. “You see everyone’s facial expressions and get the same sense of team bonding as in a normal meeting. It all depends on using the technology smartly. We have virtual tea breaks at a certain time of day, for instance, to ensure we don’t lose out on those water cooler moments. People go on video conferencing and make tea and everything,” she says, adding: “We also had a leaving do online. Everyone had a drink and chatted. It’s about not letting the constraints of not being physically together make people feel isolated.”

She thinks having virtual meetings may focus the mind more. “You don’t want people sitting on a screen for hours on end. Virtual meetings tend to be shorter and more productive, without losing that social element,” she says.

Of course, not all roles are suited to remote working, but there are often functions within any job which can be done more flexibly, such as administrative tasks, and every day new technology is changing the boundaries of how we work.

It’s worth looking at how technology companies work as they are early adopters of future ways of working. At Cisco, almost half of employees now work in different locations from their managers and new video-based technology is crucial to successful collaboration as the company rolls out a more agile working structure globally.

The company’a Connected Workplace system features an open, flexible layout and functional furniture and relies on Cisco products and technologies including IP telephony, Cisco IP Phone Extension Mobility, Cisco IP Communicator, and wireless LAN mobility.

The move away from the traditional office structure and to more remote working gives the company many advantages. For one, it can take on more staff as it does not have to increase office estate. The problem with many companies is that the traditional footprint only supports a certain number of employees, says Alan McGinty, the company’s Senior Director, Global Workplace Solutions Group.

Technology is at the heart of this new way of working and this is evolving fast. Alan predicts: “The workplace of the future will be more digital, more video driven and devices will be smaller. The global real estate footprint will continue to contract. People will be more mobile as long as it is effective for the company.”

Video is a particular focus at the moment. “Video helps to build and maintain relationships when people are working remotely,” says Alan. Cisco’s Webex system allows up to 20 people to be videoed into a meeting on a wall and to share documents. “It makes a huge difference to be able to see people,” he says.

Cisco’s virtual office uses a high bandwidth router and video IP phone which connects directly to the Cisco network in the office. Alan says it offers a high quality connection from remote computer or phone and means people can connect wherever they are in the world.

“Over 40% of our employees collaborate daily with people in other areas of the world. Our teams are very global as a result,” says Alan.