In this blog post, I will explore the advantages and disadvantages of remote or home working, coupled with my own personal experience and some of the important considerations that employers and employees should be aware of before making any changes to their working environment.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of home workers in the UK in 1998 was around 2.9 million. By 2014 the number of home workers had grown to 4.2 million. Unsurprisingly, and thanks to significant improvements in technology, broadband and telecommunications, this is a trend that is set to continue to rise.
What are the potential benefits of remote working?
- Home workers do not need to travel to their place of work, so this means that they save on the time it would normally take to travel as well as the cost of travelling. Not to mention the potential of unknown issues, like being stuck in traffic due to an accident or breakdown.
- In theory, there’s no excuse for being late anymore! If you work at home, there’s no traffic or queue and thus employers should see a dramatic rise in productivity from time lost to the rush hour syndrome.
- Employers can feel more ‘green’, because if all employees now work at home, they aren’t burning fuel – which can help enhance an employers’ carbon footprint.
- Employers can use more digital technology to engage with their employees and customers. For example, Skype for Business can be used to hold multiple conversations with groups of employees at the same time. Documents can be shared and annotated using certain systems, like Office 365 and the facility to chat during conversations as well as show a web cam.
- A culture of online or remote working will encourage employees to become more accustomed to working with technology and the digital age. This may improve the digital literacy with the knock on effect of providing a more polished experience for customers.
- Being online and using systems such as Skype for Business can provide a good way for employers to monitor their employees. Without sounding too big brother, employees can change their online status to ‘away’ or ‘busy’, for example, if they take a telephone call or the doorbell rings.
- A culture of online encourages more collaboration. This is because without that ability to speak to colleagues face to face, there needs to be a selection of systems in place to allow sharing as seamlessly as possible. The cloud has opened this up significantly over the last few years. Office 365 and Sharepoint are two such systems that enable such collaboration and the Google suite of free collaborative tools such a Drive, Slides and Docs goes a long way to providing accessible platforms.
- Remote workers have a more flexible working life balance.
- Employers don’t need to spend on expensive office space and can make significant cost savings by having employees work from home.
- The flexibility of remote working may appeal more to certain people, where such working can be very beneficial and thus improve the appeal of the company in terms of recruitment.
So, with all the positives what’s stopping employers from making the switch? All the above sounds so good, is it a no brainer?
Well, as with anything in life, it’s not that simple. It depends on many elements, such as the nature of the business and the most important question – ‘is a physical space really needed to run this business effectively?’ So does the business rely on customers passing by the shop window, or is a brand vital to be seen in a physical space by the public? What effect do other businesses have, is it important to have that business visible or in a visible space?
The answers are never easy to determine, but there is one piece of advice I can give. Research and weigh up your options carefully and work out what the cost savings could be over time. What, if any, could the impact on the business be? What are your pros and cons?
So now we inevitably move on to:
What are the potential negatives of remote working?
- Probably one of the most challenging aspects of remote working is the potential isolation that may happen if the organisation or business is poorly managed. Employees may miss the social interactions that happen at a place of work and the sense of being in a team.
- The lack of social interaction may lead to additional issues, like a drop in morale and it could lead to disillusionment and lower productivity. In more severe cases, employees may suffer from depression due to such a big change in their working environment. How do you ensure that you provide the correct support systems for such a situation?
- If the technology provided isn’t up to scratch then employees won’t have the facilities to interact online, especially if there’s no Skype, Google Hangouts or other web conferencing system to share and engage.
- If you already have a hard-working team that enjoys each other’s company at a place of work, is there a risk that by moving to remote working this may harm the dynamic of a good team? Some people will always prefer face-to-face.
- If there is not an adequate system to manage remote workers, is there a risk that they may not be at work? So, for example, pretend to be working and instead walking the dog? How can you monitor this effectively and fairly, especially if there are lots of remote workers?
- If the working space changes to a remote one, how will this affect the employees? What if some employees resist this and really don’t want the change? How can the team be kept or made into a happy one with such resistance?
- Remote workers may need to make changes to their personal space in their home to accommodate their office, including new equipment that takes up space.
- Training will be involved with regard to switching employees to remote working and this could be expensive, especially if it involves using new systems of working online. Including health and safety.
So, we’ve seen a healthy number of positives outweighing the negatives, but how can the negatives be resolved?
The important message to get across is that all of the benefits can be realised and more, as long as the potential negatives are explored in more detail and carefully considered. It’s also important to say that the lists here are by no means exhaustive, they are a selection of key points and there are many more – this is about giving you an idea of the pros and cons.
So, how can the negatives be taken out of the equation?
- For the isolation, ensure that you provide employees with plenty of opportunities to meet in person. Perhaps at the main offices of the organisation, or at an accessible place for staff. Provide decent technology that allows employees to connect online, share their web cam and create something like innovation sessions to encourage staff to bring their ideas to the table.
- Don’t just concentrate on work meetings, provide opportunities to share working lunches at different locations. Explore social events outside of work that may appeal to staff.
- If isolation becomes a real issue for some employees make sure that there are systems in place to provide support, such as counselling and information that’s easily accessible. Provide training online that helps employees to understand the potential issues of working remotely before they start work, so that they are aware and can take steps if they start to feel anxiety or isolation at work.
- Make sure technology is in place and it’s been tested and reviewed. What are the testimonials like? How do other similar organisations use the technology with their remote workers?
- Have policies and procedures in place that the remote workers are aware of and must adhere to. Consider how this relates to their online status and response times to messages, email communications and instant messages.
- Consider and carefully weigh up how the change to remote working may affect certain individuals. What if your best employee can’t stand working remotely, but you can’t afford to lose them, especially to a rival firm? Perhaps, you’ll need to still provide some kind of physical space for them to come into work.
- Research trainers, unless you have in-house trainers. What are the costs and arrangements involved?
Finally, do go and have a look at the collection of pins I have on remote working as they contain a whole host of considerations, stats and thought-provoking information.
An interesting article by Firstcom highlights trends in remote working well and I’d recommend reading this: https://firstcom.co.uk/portfolio/the-rise-in-flexible-working/
A useful article about how to manage a team working remotely: https://www.silverdoorapartments.com/blog/how-to-successfully-manage-a-r...
Remote Working, Virtual Teams and Lone Working Short Online Courses for Employers
If you have remote or mobile workers, or are considering implementing remote working you may be interested in the following short online courses:
Most of the below references point to useful further reading and infographics
Authors; Carolyn Lewis and Matt Ewens
Carolyn Lewis is a work based learning consultant specialising in the application of information and learning technologies. Prior to starting her own companies, Vocational Innovation Ltd and the Elearning Marketplace Ltd, Carolyn spent over 20 years’ in the FE and Skills and Learning and Development sectors where she combined her experience of the management of government funded programmes, quality assurance as an external verifier and her IT experience in the private sector, with her passion for developing innovative approaches to delivering work based learning. Carolyn managed the JISC remit for supporting the work based learning sector in England and Wales and she was also Projector Director of the £2 million London Assessor project, which trained and qualified over 600 individuals to join the work based learning sector in London. In the past few years Carolyn has been leading a variety of projects and working with numerous training providers to enhance and bring efficiencies to their provision through the use of innovative solutions. Carolyn founded the online open marketplace for e-learning, www.elearningmarketplace.co.uk in 2013.