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Hanging with the Homies
Home working is not new but a recent survey by the Economist Intelligence Group for AT&T indicates organisations expect much more home working in the future, writes Martin Langham of Bloor Research.
As the survey puts it, "Its time has come". A global survey of 237 senior executives showed that a bare majority of employees are expected to work from the main office by 2005. Full time telecommuters now make up 6% of US employment and in Western Europe the number of telecommuters is expected to double to 8.7M by 2005.
There are three reasons why growth is happening now. Firstly, virtual teams are being increasingly used to support distributed global organisations. Secondly, we are all increasingly comfortable with working electronically using email, instant messaging and shared workspaces. Thirdly, improvements in the price, performance and ease of use of teleworking tools make it feasible to provide every member of staff with a rich set of tools that can do the job.
Of course, teleworking won't happen unless people accept new ways of working. Companies may feel that a home-based work force won't sustain the culture they rightly cherish. Not everyone wants to work at home; younger employees value the social aspects of work highly and often don't have a pleasant work environment at home. People need a rich set of communications tools so that they feel "in touch" but you can't expect people to stay motivated if they never meet in person. Most teleworking companies have regular in-person meetings and these are very popular. The watchword is flexibility - allowing people to work how and where they perform best.
Management sometimes resists home working because they believe there is too much temptation to bunk off. In one organisation, managers used instant messaging to detect whether people were logged on at home. This may be a bit extreme. Managers have to learn how to control a distributed workforce by managing by results rather than by managing their time. This is a necessary skill in any distributed organisation.
I can give you a personal example of the sort of benefits that can come from home working. Management consultants rarely need an office desk as most of the time they are either at the client or working independently. A few years ago, a consulting company I worked for was all set to invest in a brand new headquarters to accommodate two merged consultancies. Calculations showed that if we moved to hot desking and only provided enough desks for the people actually in the office, we could use one of the existing offices with a saving of £350,000 a year. The International Telework Association and Council (ITAC) reports that, on any given day, 50 to 70 per cent of all office space is unoccupied - wasting up to $10,000 a year per workspace.
Workspace savings can be hard to realise because it's hard to downsize a building. A more immediate benefit stems from managing the work-life balance. Work-life balance legislation came into force in the UK on April 6th this year and asked employers "to seriously consider" an employee's request for flexible working - especially where they have children of junior school age or with disabilities. In a poll of 4,000 jobseekers to support the DTI's campaign for a better work-life balance, the recruitment web site www.Reed.co.uk found that 46 percent of respondents choose flexible working as the benefit they would value most - well ahead of any other perk.
The company benefit of teleworking is improved efficiency. First, there is the saving in travel time. Any meeting with vendors that I carry out by teleconference saves me a minimum of two hours and usually much more. Managers have to discipline themselves to set clear goals and measurable outcomes for teleworking employees rather than acting as timekeepers. This in itself improves productivity. People work better if they have not been subjected to the tender ministrations of Network Rail or the motorway and they can be more effective at home without the many distractions of the office.
If you are still not convinced, then there is the security argument. If the proverbial plane hits the office, you have a lot more chance of getting back on your feet if your staff can work at home.
Even if the company decides that home working doesn't fit into its culture, it is going to be hard to resist. All companies are going to make increased use of audio and video conferencing to reach partners and mobile workers. It's going to be very hard to differentiate between this type of remote working and home working. After all, how many other ways are there to reduce costs and increase the morale of staff at the same time?