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Paul Barrett
Head of Wellbeing
Paul Barrett

Home based working – how can it benefit everyone?

Authors: Paul Barrett Head of Wellbeing at Bank Workers Charity

07 April 2014

The Office for National Statistics recently published data from the latest census showing that 10.4% of UK workers are now home based. This represents a 25% growth since the previous census; a significant increase. It would be interesting to know whether this development is designed to work in the interest of both employees and employers or is simply driven by business imperatives.

So whose interest might it serve? Clearly there are employees whose lifestyle and personal constraints make home based working an attractive proposition. For the ‘sandwich generation’, with caring responsibilities at both ends of the age spectrum home based working can make it much easier to manage the complex mix of personal and work demands. For businesses, the appeal is clear; the high costs of corporate real estate make moving to a home based operating model a persuasive option. A compelling financial argument -but do organisations think through the wider implications for their workforce and for the business? 

I was talking recently with an employee who had been office based but now worked mostly from home. They explained the problems that can arise when home working is introduced without adequate preparation. For them it was a dispiriting experience. They felt isolated from their colleagues; they had lost peer support in what was a pretty demanding role and had less contact with their manager. Overall, despite their being some benefits, home based working had a negative impact on their wellbeing and job satisfaction. I think the importance of the inter-personal dimension of work shouldn’t be underestimated. We are social animals and thrive on the stimulation that comes from our interactions with colleagues.

There is more. People working from home can feel disconnected from the office grapevine and feel out of touch compared to workplace based colleagues. They may also fear that their reduced presence in the workplace will mean they miss out on opportunities for exciting work or on chances for promotion. The erosion of work and home boundaries can also lead to employees overextending themselves, risking burnout and this may not easily be picked up by their manager.

There are potentially adverse consequences for employers too.  If much of the workforce is spending significant time outside the office environment, how do they absorb the culture and values of the organisation?  There is a risk that creativity is lost as employees have less opportunity to exchange ideas with colleagues.
 There is some evidence that employee engagement is improved by home working, (2) but this tails off when more than 20% of time is spent at home, so businesses need to get the balance right. Not all roles may be equally suited to home working.  BT, who engaged in a high profile, home working programme, found they needed to bring some customer-facing roles back into an office environment.

Home based working can pose a particular challenge to those with people management responsibilities. Do the managers have the skills to get the best out of people working remotely?  How easy is it for a manager to build the strong individual and team relationships on which so much productive work depends? Trust is increasingly recognised as a key determinant of business success but these relationships need to be worked at. How will reduced levels of direct contact between managers and their teams affect levels of mutual trust?
Managing performance can also become problematic. Can managers fully understand the contribution of individuals whose main activity is carried out remotely? It can also be harder for them to know when an employee is struggling with their task and needs support.  With home working, managers need to think carefully about what mechanisms and behaviours they need to adopt to address issues such as these.
None of the obstacles I have identified are insuperable.  There is no reason at all why home working can’t operate successfully but organisations need to recognise that this represents a different way of working. It demands different skills, different ways of communicating and different styles of management if it is to work for everyone.
(1 )Office for National Statistics.  2011 Census Analysis – Distance travelled to work.  26 March 2014
(2)Gallup - State of the American Workplace Report 2013 http://www.gallup.com/strategicconsulting/163007/state-american-workplace.aspx

 

Paul Barrett is Head of Wellbeing at Bank Workers Charity