Telecommuting, mobile work, remote work, flexible workplace… call it what you will. In light of the Covid 19 epidemic working from home (WFH) has become the norm for many Australians. But how good is it for your business? Is it really sustainable? Or should we see working from home as temporary… making the best of a difficult situation.
The concept of WFH is far from being something new. In the early 1970s a wave of technological innovation gave us the tools to bring our work and home lives together in a much more sustainable manner. Networked computers installed in employees’ homes revolutionised the modern company. Teleworking – as it became known – would free us all from the grind of the daily commute, enabling an easier blend of work and family life. But was it and IS IT the ‘Magical Unicorn’ it’s touted to be?
Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo, created an uproar when Yahoo forced employees back into offices in 2013. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings,”.
IBM came to a similar decision. In 2009, 40 percent of its 386,000 employees in 173 countries worked remotely. But in 2017, with revenue slumping, management called thousands of them back to the office.
With a predominantly remote team, real face-to-face interaction is lost and there’s no substitute for this during some activities, especially those more collaborative in nature. Video conferencing can offset this, but it’s not a perfect replacement for that in-person human interaction. In addition, remote workers must constantly balance and monitor various communication streams… instant messaging apps, video call software, project management tools, and of course the ever-present email. With so many options for communication, it makes sense that managers are concerned about something slipping through the cracks or being ‘lost in translation’. Then there is the human toll, for staff who WFH a sense of isolation and decrease in morale is an ever-present concern.
WFH suits some personality types but not others. They're likely to need skills in several key areas:
Monitoring and assessing the performance of people who WFH is perhaps the most significant managerial challenge. With all the allure of social media, Netflix, unfinished DIY projects, quick walks around the block to ‘clear the head’ and whatever other small distractions there are in a day, it’s no surprise that managers worry about the work productivity of their employees out of the office.
“Working from home is a strategic move, not just a tactical one that saves money,” said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. “A lot of it comes down to trust. Do you trust your people?”
All the standard measures of management and performance, such as time in and out, go out the window. Many strategies that worked for managers in the past will be near impossible with a remote team. No more getting the team together after lunch for a project discussion, no more doing walkarounds to make sure everyone is working, and no more being able to visit someone’s desk and demand their attention. Remote work could make much of traditional management practices useless.
In addition to being difficult to manage, it can be hard to keep remote workers accountable. With a completely virtual presence, it’s harder to establish ties, such as friendship and camaraderie, that encourage accountability. Of course, software and systems have been developed to monitor productivity and performance and some jobs lend themselves to that very well:
telesales and marketing
coding and software development
consultancy and professional services
Accountancy or HR administration
writing, editing, research and translation
Another very real challenge for business is information security risk, especially if your business deals with sensitive data. Large scale remote working is a security nightmare for employers. As remote access to corporate networks is handed out, cyber-criminals have their pick of places to attack. These problems are exacerbated by the reality that many people use personal, and potentially less secure home devices, such as laptops, phones and USB drives, for work tasks. Most people will struggle to maintain workplace security practices over long periods in their homes, with kids, distractions and other commitments.
Ultimately, it’s a little divisive. There seem to be as many people willing to espouse the virtues of working from home as there are those who tell you it’s just not a sustainable option. One thing is clear, while remote work can be an excellent way to work, it isn’t for everyone and it isn’t for every business or industry.
For many businesses in Australia working remotely is not as effective as being onsite. But could WFH or a hybrid form part of a strategy or culture?
In today’s (and tomorrow’s) economy, the keys to success are flexibility and resilience. If workers are able to be productive and efficient working remotely and if it aligns with your company’s strategy, goals, and what you’re trying to accomplish, why not? But it needn’t be a hard and fast policy. A shift towards home working doesn't mean employees have to work only from home. Often splitting time between home and the workplace is the most productive solution and you may want the homeworker to attend meetings in person to keep them fully involved and informed.
Remote work is not going away, but it will continue to evolve. Whether or not it’s for you and your business or staff is a question with a fluid answer.