Changing the way we work – the role teleworking can play in how, when and where we work, a 2012 LCCI report (produced in conjunction with IT and recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash) found that most companies had no formal policy on teleworking although they offered it as and when needed.
Following a change in the law in June 2014, all UK employers must consider requests for flexible or homeworking from any employee with at least 26 weeks’ service (previously only working parents could ask). Requests may still be refused on ‘business grounds’ but reasons must be given and could be challenged by an employee.
What has altered since 2012 in how, where and when people work? Of the 30.2 million people in work in the UK in 2014, 4.2 million worked away from the office. This gives a home worker rate of 13.9 per cent, the highest since comparable records began in 1998 when 2.9 million people worked from home. In London, 13.6 per cent of workers are home-based.
Two thirds of homeworkers are men, who tend to be concentrated in building/construction work, skilled trades, sales and accounts, business development management and IT. Female homeworkers are more likely to be cleaners and domestics, care workers, childminders, bookkeepers, payroll managers and clerks. In general, home workers who had been formerly office-based tended to be older and more experienced staff, which fits with LCCI’s 2012 report finding that managers felt more comfortable in letting them work alone.
Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School, says: “Some employers don’t actually trust their staff to get on with their work. They worry that their attention will be diverted elsewhere, for example, in looking after children. Cooper believes that part of the problem is that many managers don’t have the competency to manage people remotely. “They think it will be extra work for them. Managers would have to set objectives in advance and monitor them. Staff are deterred from asking to work from home because they think it will affect their careers adversely.”
This concern is echoed by Phil Flaxton, chief executive of WorkWise (UK), a campaigning body whose aim is to make the UK one of the world’s most progressive economies by introducing smarter working practices. Flaxton says that WorkWise (UK) initially found there was an element of distrust about allowing staff to work from home. “More managers feel comfortable with remote working today than a decade ago. Distrust still occurs, but that’s because managers don’t know how to manage people remotely. What underpins the change is that managers have to manage their remote staff on input, not output.
Flaxton cites the example of British Telecom, where 62,000 of its 87,000-strong workforce have the ability to work remotely. “Productivity actually rose when people started to work away from the office in large numbers. The lack of distractions meant that people were immersed in their work. Some were even working between 12 and 14 hours a day.”
He believes that flexible working is a win-win situation for both employers and staff, boosting their worklife balance. Reducing the need to travel also benefits the environment through lower carbon emissions.
Almost two thirds of homeworkers are self-employed. It is likely that many individuals who have become self-employed in the last few years have done so following redundancy during the recession. There had been 4.5 million private sector businesses in the UK in 2010 at the recession’s height. By 2015, there were 5.4 million, many of the newer ones being sole proprietors and home-based.
Technology makes it possible for businesses to operate from home and to access shared documents and drives over the internet. Skype and Facetime are used to hold ‘virtual’ meetings. The rise of cloud-based computing means that workers can access data from almost anywhere. Fintan O’Toole, LCCI board member and director of The HR Dept., a consultancy where all but one member of the team of eight people work flexible hours, says: “Nearly all our IT is cloud-based. We have two new operating systems – a CRM system and Office 365, which staff can use wherever they are.”
Not every job is suitable for homeworking and some will always need a physical presence. Successful flexible working also depends on following some ground rules to avoid drawbacks. For example, the staff at The HR Dept. have agreed to work in the office on a Monday so that face-to-face meetings could be held then.
Robert Rigby, business development and marketing manager at Emerald Global, a travel management company where two members of staff work from home, believes flexible working can succeed. “It relies very much on connectivity and the ability to stay in touch wherever you are.”
At present, 87 per cent of office employees still work mostly in the office and three million people commute on the Tube each day. However, a recent Virgin Media survey of business owners predicted that 60 per cent of office-based employees will regularly work from home by 2022. In addition, an Office Angels survey found that one third of employees believe commuting will be unheard of by 2036.
Alexa Michael, Business Information Executive LCCI