The term remote working (or flexible working) covers the concept of working in places other than your office. It can be used to mean working on the go, for example out and about on a mobile, or from a client’s office, the employee’s home office or in a satellite office. Paula Wynne, iHubbub, examines both the challenges and the upsides to remote working.

Remote working is becoming increasingly popular as the technology grows ever more sophisticated and managers have realised the benefits of allowing their employees to work flexibly.

Commuting to and from a place of employment can be stressful, and research shows that approximately 70 per cent of employees would be interested in working from home on a regular basis. Supporting this, more than 90 per cent of employers in the UK say that there is some kind of flexible option within their company.1

The benefits of remote working

An estimated 6.5 million people in the UK were utilising this way of working in 2012, with over 15 per cent of workers within the EU spending more than 10 working hours every week away from both their home and their workplace.2

There are divided opinions regarding the benefits of remote working for both the worker and the company itself. Many bosses are happy to let their employees work away from the office on an occasional or regular basis, citing that it allows them to reduce the physical office space needed, thus cutting overhead costs.

It can also mean a renewed motivation for their staff; a change of scene or hours can do wonders for staff morale. The flexibility of a day away from their desk means that an employee can fit their hours around other commitments and without a commute at both ends of the day, can also mean that more work can be achieved, with remote workers on average working 11 per cent longer than their office-based counterparts.3

Remote working employee challenges

There are, on the other hand, issues that arise from being away from the buzz of an office that must be addressed before considering this way of working. Let’s start with the employee themselves.

Although working from a satellite office, home office or other location may seem like a breath of fresh air, it is easy to underestimate the isolation of not having real contact with other human beings throughout the day.

If they’re not used to working from home ‘alone’, they may not adapt easily enough within your timings. Whilst video calls are easily made, it is not the same as having colleagues at the next desk, for both work and personal conversations. They may also feel that they are out of the working loop if they miss meetings and important decisions being made.

Remote working employer concerns

As for the employer, they also have to consider the implications of allowing their staff to stay away from the office. Despite research showing that people are more productive when they are away from the hustle and bustle of other people, Yahoo’s CEO Melissa Mayer banned home working outright early in 2013. She recently stated that ‘people are more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.’

Managers also have to decide whether it is safe for workers to be taking the company’s IT equipment or private data into the outside world. There are security risks that need to be assessed, as well as the fact that employees no longer have any immediate supervision to see how they are spending their time. Companies have a duty of care over their workers’ welfare, something that can be much harder to watch when they are often away from the office. 

Overcoming these remote working issues

So how can you run a remote working team? At iHubbub and Remote Employment, our ‘clocking in machine’ is Skype. We encourage our remote employees to treat Skype as their office. Just as they wouldn’t walk past a colleague and ignore them when coming to work, they use Skype to say ‘Morning’, ‘I’m off to grab a bite’, ‘Going for a coffee’, or anything that happens in a normal working environment. Except… this is just over the airwaves.

You may want to trial some of your staff by allowing them to work from home a day a week and communicating via Skype to see if it works for you.

Technology boosts remote working

As technology has become more sophisticated, the lot of the remote worker has become easier; the ability to email on the go through 3G-enabled smartphones and tablets, along with shared networks, ensures that remote workers can work virtually anywhere, and still remain completely accessible to colleagues and clients.

Instant messaging is on the verge of overtaking email as the premium form of communication – multiple real-time conversations can be undertaken at the same time to keep in touch with the office. Cloud software means that all an employee needs to stay connected is an internet connection and a password; documents, spreadsheets, databases and calendars are all within reach from wherever they are. Encryption can be employed to all wireless networks, internet connections and portable devices to ensure complete discretion and security.

Many will argue that nothing can beat face-to-face communication, and whilst that may be true, both technology and the quality of the connectivity has improved to such a standard that taking part in a meeting via video conference can be a smooth and helpful activity, without the lag and stuttering that hindered the process in earlier years. 

There is also a very real environmental case for companies to employ remote working; in 2012 telecommunications giant O2 asked their head office employees (which totalled around 2,500 people) to take part in a remote working day to show what flexible working can achieve.

Not only did the staff save 2,000 hours of commuting time (52 per cent of which was spent working), with over a third feeling that they had been more productive than they would have been in the office, but the lack of cars needed to get them to work saved 12.2 tons of C02 being released into the atmosphere. (That’s around the equivalent of a medium-sized diesel car driving 42,000 miles). Electricity and water usage within the building also decreased.4

Aviva UK have also changed the way they work, after discovering that the cost in C02 terms to get their entire executive committee together for a meeting was 6.4 tonnes. They are now using teleconferencing to ensure their carbon footprint is reduced.5

Any which way you look at remote working, with shut eyes and a negative mind or blurry eyes and a so-so gut feeling, it is certainly worth weighing up the pros and cons for your own business and possibly pushing the boat out and having a go. It’s easily done for a day or so, and if it works on numerous levels, it can be rolled out more productively.

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