The case for remote working

Dan Martin
Former editor
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Matt CantwellOver the decades the notion of a healthy work/life balance has shifted from a HR buzz word to a concept that has been debated in forums as high as the Houses of Parliament. However a good work/life balance is not just about working less hours; instead flexibility is proving the key for maintaining a happy, healthy workforce. Matt Cantwell, head of product portfolio at THUS, a telecoms provider to the SME sector, discusses practical measures that will ensure a flexible work force is not an unproductive work force.

A recent survey by THUS verified the widespread impression that employers are uncertain about remote-working. THUS revealed that although more than 80% of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) now have remote working policies in place, only 45% of employees are taking advantage of the opportunity to work out of the office. This significant gap between those who do work remotely and those who are allowed to work remotely suggests that employers are struggling with how to practically implement a remote working policy.

Despite the low adoption rate, there has been a 45% increase in demand for remote working, which means that although people want to work away from the office, there are underlying concerns that are preventing them from doing so. These concerns are two-fold: an implicit corporate perception that working from home is unproductive; and the lack of availability of adequate work resources to enable remote working. In fact, once a company spends time examining how to implement a best practice remote working policy they will find that these two concerns go hand-in-hand.

Benefits of remote working
Flexibility for employees means being able to work remotely from the office and have some control over their daily schedule. The latter can be easily implemented by giving guidance to employees as to the time brackets within which they can start and end their day, and the amount of hours each employee must work in any given day or week. However, small to medium businesses often have a lean work force and they are concerned that a day spent working from home can in fact be a day spent not working at all.

In reality, the opposite can be true: a day working from home, without the distraction of the office, can increase efficiency and concentration. The opportunity to work in a quieter environment and spend less time commuting can lead to an improved work-life balance. It also enables companies to bring greater employee diversity to the workplace by making it easier for working mothers and people with disabilities to be involved with the company.

For example, with the right technology in place, working parents now have the choice to leave work earlier to spend time with their children and then continue working later in the evening from home. Similarly, regular business travellers can work more effectively by being able to access the company network regardless of location, providing them with a mobile office and greater flexibility on how they chose to manage their workload while travelling.

With retention rates always a concern, remote working is an attractive, non-monetary work benefit that is proving a real incentive to people when considering their employment options. The key to unlocking the benefits of flexible working is to ensure that when a boardroom policy is being created it always keeps practical implementation front of mind.

Fostering a positive perception
A key obstacle to overcome is one of perception. Both employees and employers have a tendency to view remote working as less effective then office working. Business psychologist, Kate Keenan, believes that a positive image of remote working can be achieved if a few rules are put in place. "It is important to regularly communicate with all members of the remote working team. This includes planning regular face-to-face time and setting clearly defined objectives for team members, so that they know what to do and their deadline for completion."

She continues: "It is important to reward employees for their good work so that staff can clearly see that their value to the organisation has not reduced since they adopted a flexible working pattern. Similarly, the company must be seen to understand and support staff during any period of adjustment if employees are really going to feel comfortable asking to work remotely."

Technology shouldn't be a hindrance
Even if a positive remote working attitude has been fostered, employees still need to have access to the resources they need in order to work effectively. The THUS survey revealed that technology issues are one of the main obstacles to the adoption of flexible working with out-of-hours support unavailable for 73% of employees who are able to work from home. The survey also showed that 57% of SMEs expect their employees to pay for some, if not all, of the technology required to work remotely.

Having the right technology and support at home are just some of the technology challenges that must be overcome. Others include the need for a network to be able to cope with the requirements of hot-desking, the expense of mobile phone calls and home PC equipment, and the increased security required while accessing company networks remotely. For a company implementing or overhauling their remote working policy they would be advised to speak with a telecom provider who can offer flexibility for businesses and employees without a detrimental affect on work productivity. Companies need to enable remote access to commonly used applications such as centralised billing, ensure they can track the hours worked by remote workers, guarantee extensive technical support for all end users and increase security measures.

By using a single provider, businesses can seek advice on what technology they need to support remote working and evaluate how this technology should best be managed. In addition to installing and maintaining anti-virus software on the remote computer, companies must implement robust firewalls to help filter against spyware, email viruses and users who access a corporate network in an insecure public wireless hotspot. A company can further protect itself by encrypting wireless networks so that only registered machines can access the corporate network.

Cost of remote working
Technology is the primary outgoing cost for SMEs implementing a remote working policy and can seem daunting when first considered. However there are measures they can take to reduce the cost. By opting for Voice Over Broadband services, SMEs can take advantage of VoIP technology to reduce call spend and exploit broadband connections for more than just data traffic. Not only does this service eliminate the need to pay for a second phone line at a worker’s home, but it allows the company to monitor call spend through a dedicated online control panel. Other technology solutions such as email mobile services and location-agnostic voice conferencing can also ensure that working from home is as effective as working from the office.

Although such technology comes as an expense, sourcing a complete solution from a single supplier allows businesses to make cost-savings through bulk purchasing or multi-purpose technology. In addition, these costs can be set against the benefits of remote working. The outlay for renting office space can be reduced by implementing hot-desking where space is shared between staff that only work in the office one to two days per week. In addition, some small companies can remove the overhead entirely by not having a permanent address at all. However the real costs savings can be made when considering the benefits of remote working to staff morale.

The 2002 Employment Act has forced businesses to consider requests for flexible and remote working, with the view that it helps those with a family continue working. In addition, the 2005 Disability Act also asks employers to respond to the needs of disabled people to ensure that they can fulfil their career ambitions while managing their disability. Disregarding legal obligations, businesses could find that retention rates increase by offering remote working. The CIPD labour turnover survey of 2006 found that it costs an average of £8,200 to replace an employee, rising to £12,000 for senior managers or directors so businesses need to be receptive to staff's wishes to work more flexibly to remove the cost of losing and replacing staff.

In short, remote working is entirely feasible for SMEs to implement if it is approached in a well managed and planned manner. The benefits to the business, the demand from employees and the availability of suitable technology are pushing remote working to the top of a business's agenda. It’s now just a case of SMEs recognising and accommodating this change.


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