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The real debate around home working needs to dig much deeper

The real debate around home working needs to dig much deeper

07 March 2013

Brian Ward, director of workplace strategy at Telereal Trillium, comments on the recent discussion around Yahoo’s decision to stop its staff from working remotely. 

(BBC: Teleworking: the myth of working from home; Sunday Times: Are you working or shirking from home?

The BBC, Sunday Times and other media have given significant coverage to this decision and were right to raise the issue that working at home is not a straightforward one, as well as question whether or not, in general, it makes good sense. Inevitably, talk has centred on the emotional responses directed towards people working from home. For the most part, those in the office feel that those at home are less productive than they normally would be. This is almost certainly true in some cases. In others, the opposite is almost certainly true.

However, this discussion – understandable though it might be – is arguably deflecting debate from where it should be directed. Being in the office is not necessarily a guarantee of productivity. Neither is it a guarantee of value creation. Hours and productivity don’t always equal value. It’s about outcomes not inputs. These are the sorts of issues a business needs to consider. It’s about what really works for them. What sort of business it is? What sort of people does it employ? What issues is it facing? What is happening on the ground both for the business and for its customers (is there, for example, a transformation effort underway which would benefit from having employees together and interacting with one another?) Does the business have a naturally dispersed workforce that is culturally comfortable with engaging remotely with one another and does the senior team have the skills to lead, manage and motivate such a workforce?

These, and many other questions besides, should be underpinning the debate.

What works for one business, team or individual might not work for another for a whole multitude of reasons. This is not a simple debate about productivity and the blanket application of one working practice or another. It’s about balance and appropriateness. And each business will need to make its own decision on this.

If the context is whether to introduce a further advance in home working – a recent Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) report claims that as many as 94 per cent of UK employers offer some form of flexible working – then companies need to have an effective communication plan for their people to explain the business rationale and how this relates to those who are to be offered this work style.

The ILM report is more indicative of how flexible working has developed. The key is in the term ‘flexible’. It is not a straightforward home versus office question. Whilst companies will have people who are officially classed as home workers many more will be headquartered at an office but have the facility to work from home, accessing company networks through domestic broadband.

This provides a win-win opportunity for the company and the individual. The company will be seen to be supporting flexible working for its people, which is known to help attract and retain staff, and it also helps to demonstrate its environmental credentials. Added to this it also makes more effective use of its office space through the provision of team rather than individually allocated desks. For the individual, savings in travel time and commuting costs, and the ability to deal with domestic circumstances as they arise, provide a better work-life balance. Building the basis of a successful flexible working policy is simply down to good management.


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