The recent proliferation of mobile phones, blackberries and wireless broadband in Irish business has allowed an ever increasing number of employees to turn their homes into a second office, be it on an irregular or permanent basis. The advantages of so-called ‘teleworking’ are obvious – workers get to operate from the comfort of their own home without distraction while the offer of such flexibility allows businesses to attract the best possible employees and keep them happy once they are there.
However for every positive there are many unforeseen negatives; a reality which many businesses in Ireland are now having to come to terms with.
In Ireland SMEs are some of the more prolific users of the teleworking. According to research undertaken by O2 Ireland, which sells the type of technology that allows on-the-go working, 47% of Ireland’s SME senior managers spend at least one day a month working from home while 29% work from home for four days a month or more.
But while large businesses with big human resources departments tend to keep on top of the challenges presented by mobile working, it is the likes of the SMEs that are far more likely to establish makeshift solutions that work for a limited time but become counter-productive and even toxic in the long term.
“Most enterprises don’t have a formal plan for virtual office environments and usually support the concept on an ad-hoc basis, mostly at manager discretion,” said Andrew Walker, research director for Gartner CIO Research Group, who said such a situation only magnifies the potential for problems in the long term.
As a result of these informal arrangements, SMEs that are facilitating teleworking may quickly find it harder to manage and may find day-to-day operations all the more difficult.
For example if jobs dependent on teamwork are being done by members of staff who work from home at various times during the week, the final product is bound to suffer. Likewise the lack of regular, direct contact between the worker and manager in a company may result in that relationship deteriorating rapidly.
“The first thing businesses need to know is that only certain roles are suitable to teleworking and only certain people are suitable to it too,” said Derek McKay, Managing Director of Adare Human Resources Management. “Employees working from home have to rely on their own discipline and their own initiative far more than they may do in an office.”
If an employee’s work is below standard or if the employee is still learning the ropes allowing them to spend even part of their working week outside the office could prove counter-productive, he added.
However even with reliable members of staff that can productively work from home, managers must ensure they are able to take a different tact with them when dealing with issues or problems they raise. After all, there is a massive gulf between ironing out issues on a task when sitting across a desk as opposed to doing it by phone or email.
It is also important to ensure an employer does not make the decision to remove a staff member from the natural learning environment of a busy office, especially if they are only new to a role or particular challenge.
“The amount of learning that goes on in the office on a daily basis is amazing,” said McKay. “A person may overhear the way a colleague deals with a client or query and it will inform them of the best way to do their job in the future – you have to ensure people don’t miss out on that experience.”
But while businesses can suffer greatly from a poorly thought-out teleworking system, the disadvantages for employees are just as severe.
While not having to commute to the office for hours on end will appeal to most people it may be attractive to some for all the wrong reasons.
“There’s always the temptation there to spend an extra hour in bed just because you don’t have to be in the office for 9am,” said McKay. “People who succumb to that then find themselves having to work into the evening just to keep up.”
Indeed it may be the case that without the right discipline employees may find themselves becoming less productive when working from home, which is bad for both their own career prospects and their employer’s bottom-line.
Ironically the other extreme of productivity is just as uninviting and potentially detrimental to both the business and its staff.
With a person being immediately contactable via any number of methods they may find themselves taking calls and emails even when they are officially “off the clock”; something which could eventually wear them down. People may even find themselves dipping back into work after office hours of their own accord, just because they can.
“When you’re working and living in the same place it’s very easy to let it all blend into one so it’s very important to create a division between work time and home time and you have to have a very strong routine,” said McKay. “I’ve heard stories of people who get up and get dressed for work even though they’re only going downstairs – some even leave the house and drive around the block just to get themselves into that work mindset!”
Assuming an employee has no problem with separating their work and personal lives – even when they both occur in the same place – they may still end up feeling like they are at a professional disadvantage as a result of their disconnect from the office environment.
Such a disconnect not only means that employees will have more trouble communicating and solving problems remotely; they may also find that as they are out of their boss’s sight they are also out of his or her mind. This could particularly jar when the time comes for management to delegate a new task or decide the recipient of a promotion.
“If an employer is looking to put someone forward for a project are they more likely to go for the person they see working everyday and who they can informally talk to about the task, or someone who isn’t there?” said McKay. “We’d all like to think that promotions are far more equitable than that but in reality they are not. Employers have to ensure they give everyone the same opportunity to put themselves forward for something, not just the person they see most.”
The best way of avoiding these types of problems is relatively simple according to both McKay and Walker. If employers put a straight-forward structure in place which outlines the criteria and guidelines surrounding teleworking, they will find their preparation reaps significant dividends over time.
The existence of a firm, formal plan – including an initial pilot scheme to test the viability of teleworking in the workplace – will help remove most of the major hurdles that tend to manifest themselves within teleworking arrangements that evolve slowly over time. Such a plan would set out the precise criteria that will be considered when deciding if an employee can work from home and could also set up explicit guidelines and limitations on the practice.
”With a formal structure the employee is clear about what is being considered,” said McKay. “This is important because if an employee’s application to work from home is rejected the reasons must be clearly explained – otherwise you may have a situation where an employee feels discriminated against because of something like their gender or race.”
Andrew Walker says that this preparation is key and that running a pilot is a vital part of convincing sceptics of teleworking’s benefits:
“Having a pilot helps reduce resistance to the virtual office. If the outcomes are positive, and there is no need to extend the pilot to prove the point further, the benefits can be shown to resistors in other parts of the enterprise,” he said.
Perhaps more importantly, a structured teleworking agreement will make clear what is expected of those who are authorised to work from home, be it productivity targets or otherwise.
Besides these types of guidelines, other seemingly minor aspects of teleworking should also be nipped in the bud from the outset, ensuring that there is minimal cause for tension between employee and employer as things progress.
For example, as the employee will be working from home some kind of agreement may need to be reached that ensures work-related expenses – such as electricity, phone and broadband bills – are compensated for fairly.
Another vitally important element of working from home that employers could easily overlook is their legal obligation to provide a safe work environment for their employees, which extends even to the home-made office space.
“A more formal approach demonstrates to new recruits that the enterprise is willing to make a long-term commitment to work/life balance, which is key to employee satisfaction and retention,” said Walker, who suggested that the more preparation is done the better for everyone involved.
However the perhaps greatest problem for employees which stems from the mobile office is not one created by a lack of face-to-face contact or by the difficulty in separating work and play, said McKay.
As he points out, when an employee is working from home they are in an environment which they created themselves and which should theoretically encourage them to work at their best. If they fail to keep up with what is expected of them in this situation, there will be no room for them to blame office distractions or their colleagues’ incompetence – so the onus is on them alone to them to prove their worth and ability to their employer.
An edited version of this feature was published in Business & Finance magazine on the 20th June 2008.