A new report from Business in the Community highlights the benefits of remote working: staff who take advantage of it are more likely to have a positive view of both their line manager and their employer. Its research also found that three-quarters of managers think flexible working generally has made their teams more productive, while helping to retain key staff and improving responsiveness.
But although most firms like to trumpet their commitment to the cause, they don't always practice what they preach - and as a result, suffered severe disruption when January's bad weather stopped staff getting into the office. So how can UK plc raise its game? MT asked ntl:Telewest Business' John Cunningham for his top ten tips.
1. Know the difference
Flexible and remote working are different, and it is important that employees understand this. Flexible working refers to the working practices of the employee; for example, working parents may fit start and finish times around the school run. Remote working covers the ability to work out of the office - so either from home, on the road or from other sites or locations. Obviously remote working is not for everyone – for example, organisations within pharmaceutical, mining and hospitality organisations are generally less well-disposed to remote working for operational reasons. Nor is it suitable for every office role. As such, criteria for remote working must be clearly defined and communicated effectively to employees.
2. Make the policies clear
One of the biggest employee bugbears is when a business publically endorses remote working, but internally there’s confusion. This makes people feel uncomfortable about asking how they can do it. Working from home no longer needs to be an activity that is frowned upon. In fact, it can help to boost employee morale and productivity.
3. Make sure staff have home broadband
The increasing popularity of working from home has prompted many companies to include home broadband as part of their employee benefits packages. Although this must be allocated as a taxable benefit, it does give employees extra flexibility - and the chance to get a broadband package that will enable them to experience office-like speeds in the home.
4. Equip remote workers with corporate laptops
From being a luxury item just a few years ago, laptops have now become relatively inexpensive, with many companies choosing to replace desktops with laptops as a matter of course. For mobile or remote workers they are essential items, but if you are planning to give employees remote access to company servers, remember to provide adequate training on how to use the equipment and access information securely.
5. Drum it in: security, security, security
Whenever an employee accesses company information, whether this is at home or on the road, they must be able to do this securely to prevent information from being lost or misappropriated. Most companies use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to ring-fence the information passing between company servers and workers’ computers, to ensure that corporate information remains safe.
6. Keep the lines of communication open
Some staff that work from home complain of feeling 'disconnected' and ostracised from the team. To ensure that this does not happen, businesses should ensure that they are always communicating with workers who are not in the office. This can be aided by Presence Management, in which an employee can change their status depending on whether they are busy or available, making it easy for other people to keep in touch with them. As well as instant messaging to encourage communications, you can also use video conferencing, so that the employee remains visual to his/her colleagues.
7. Use a single contact number for employees
A remote working employee still needs to be contactable. In order to minimise confusion for colleagues, associates and customers, try to route calls to a single contact number, so that they can be reached whether they are in the office, a meeting, the car, or at home. This can easily be achieved through the implementation of a unified communications solution.
8. Build it into business continuity plans
With the British weather getting less and less predictable, remote working can form part of organisations’ business continuity plans, as the same set-up used to allow remote access can be employed to keep companies ticking over if the worst should happen. 2009 saw the heaviest snowfalls since 1991, meaning that millions of people couldn’t make it into work. This wasn’t a problem for businesses set up for remote working.
9. Don’t tie workers to a specific desk
As organisations are looking to reduce costs wherever possible, one option they can consider with remote working is to save money on their most expensive asset - the space they lease or own. As offices with remote workers require less space, companies can move to smaller, cheaper premises with hotdesks available for when staff come into the office.
10. Put computers in the Palms of people's hands
Giving employees smartphones, such as BlackBerrys or iPhones, can dramatically increase their productivity by reducing the ‘dead time’ of commuting and travelling to and from meetings. As well as being great for emails and calls, today’s smartphones can also be used as mini-computers, loaded with the same applications that workers use on their desktops or laptops. This saves time as workers don’t have to return to the office to upload orders or take payments, and it reduces the burden and errors involved in transferring information between systems.