Working from home – a great opportunity that can get abused

<p>The HR Headmistress, Kate Russell, extols the virtues of a flexible approach to working, provided you can manage it effectively to avoid abuse.</p>

Most of us are used to “Martini” working now – (any time, any place anywhere…) and it’s all made possible by modern technology. The TUC has made headlines with its analysis that now 4.2 million people in Britain work from home, an increase of over 800,000 since 2005. The biggest increase geographically has been in London, and sector-wise it’s IT and telecoms. The increase is also thought to be due to the increase in self-employed people since the recession.

Both the TUC and Work Wise UK have hailed this as a new era of flexible working and employee wellbeing as workers avoid the costs and time-consuming nature of commuting.

There are certainly many benefits to homeworking for employees and employers alike. Costs can be saved on both sides, although employers will have to ensure the homeworking environment is safe and properly equipped.

For employees who do not need regular supervision and can take advantage of technology for sufficient communication, can be an excellent idea and a very attractive benefit. It saves time as well as money and it can be healthier too, especially if the commute on packed public transport can be avoided. Other companies, although not using the homeworking model in do allow employees to work from wherever is convenient. Many people prefer to work from home from time to time as it helps get their heads down for some detailed work without other employees to distract them.

The benefits of homeworking are well documented. Managing home and mobile workers needs a different approach to ensure that the employees are engaged and productive. KPIs are critical, as is regular reporting and feedback. Unless there is a good reason, homeworkers should be coming in for a weekly or fortnightly meeting to discuss results and how work should proceed. It’s easy, even for a well-meaning employee, to slip into bad habits if not told otherwise.

Not everyone likes home working. Yahoo boss Marissa Mayer caused an outcry when she banned it because employees weren’t productive enough, although there were many employees who quietly said that many people who were supposed to be working from home had been abusing it. Everyone from Richard Branson onwards said she’d made a mistake. But it seems to have worked. Some eight months after Yahoo banned working from home, Hewlett Packard did the same.

It’s always wise to keep an eye on home workers’ activities. A pharmaceutical company once had a lone employee manning a small site in the middle of nowhere (part of the time he worked from home). Part of his job was to buy in small amounts of platinum which would be added to miniature drill bits to make them harder. No-one really bothered about him, and everything seemed fine – the platinum always arrived on time. One day though an accountant noticed a something. Over the past two years the company had ordered half a kilogram of platinum. There were plenty of drills in use but it seemed far too much. After checking that the manual workers hadn’t received that much, the accountant and the HR manager drove down to the lone employee’s area. They found that his ‘home address’ was in fact a bicycle shop! The company site was still there but with very little sign of activity. There didn’t seem to be a stockpile of platinum anywhere either! The employee had left taking the money with him.

But don’t let this cynicism put you off flexibility. Scrutinise expenses and compare outgoings with productivity – you’ll soon find the problems and the unexplained discrepancies. If people are properly managed, those with a weakness for deception are less likely to engage in it.

The key is to manage employees and have proper checks and balances in place. Keep close to employees and keep them involved with regular communication to discuss goals, methods and performance. Find a range of techniques that allow you to make contact in effectively. Use Skype as well as phone and email. Meet up on a face-to-face basis regularly.

Make sure that remote workers have the right support. That includes providing the right equipment and access to your network.

Not everyone is cut-out for home-working and as Yahoo found, there will be employees who are not productive in a home environment. The productivity issue can be addressed by ensuring clearly defined tasks with your employees. While you should check in regularly to keep abreast of developments, balance this is out with trust. Most employees will deliver the results you want if they’re able to complete tasks to the agreed timescale, but on their own terms.

When it’s well-managed, a flexible approach to working is a great benefit and, although it’s unlikely to become the absolute norm, is becoming more and more popular. Stay ahead of the game and save some money in the process!

About Kate Russell

The HR Headmistress, #employmentlaw trainer, HR advisor to business owners & HR professionals, author, speaker, green thumbed babe & whodunnits addict

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