No more nine to five?

24th of September 2019
No more nine to five?

Working nine-to-five may soon have meaning only as a Dolly Parton lyric screeched out at karaoke bars. Employees today are singing a different tune craving greater flexibility in their lives. Hartley Milner looks at how one business granted its people their wish.

Evolving technologies are transforming the world of work in ways we would have dismissed as science fiction not so long ago. Who of us could have seen the emergence of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning and data storage in a cloud? All were dreamt up to help us function more smartly.

Yet we cling on to some work-related traditions that are anything but smart. It seems barely credible, for example, that we still put ourselves through the indignities of the morning commute. Where is the joy in being ensnared in gridlocked traffic or standing in a stuffy rail carriage wedged between the student blaring out scratchy music through headphones and the guy who sprinkles garlic on his cornflakes?

Online recruitment site Totaljobs found that the average UK worker spends 400 days of their life commuting…enough time to listen to the Beatles’ entire back catalogue 990 times (through noise-dampening headphones, please!). Meanwhile, workers travelling into London lose 559 days out of their life. Commutes into the capital cost on average €335 a month, €216,000 over a lifetime.

Then when you arrive at your place of work, fatigued and fuming, you find you have simply exchanged one stressful environment for another. Efficiency already impaired, you now have to plough your way through your day’s workload, perhaps to a tight deadline while being constantly distracted by trivial issues, constant noise and interminable meetings. As your anxiety levels soar, you may start to question whether you fully understand your role and responsibilities, and become less engaged with projects and your position within the company.

Less productive

All this impacts on your productivity and you feel compelled to take work home to catch up, which means less time for things that really matter in life… family, friends, leisure and your personal wellbeing.

There are ways out of the madness. You could do a Reginald Perrin and fake your own death, leaving your clothes and personal effects on a beach before going off to work in a piggery. A less drastic step might be to ask if your employer would allow you to work from home. The boss may surprise you, when he sees the business benefits.

This was the path Shia Brockway took following the arrival of her first child in 2009. Towards the end of her maternity leave, Shia began to question whether she wanted to return to her London-based job headhunting talent for the global science and technology sectors.

New priorities

She said: “Naturally, I was thrilled to become a mum. I slipped easily into motherhood and found it amazing. But I quickly developed a new set of priorities. At the same time, I loved my job, just not the hassle surrounding it. So, I asked if I could work from home, part-time to start with. After a period of reflection, my employer agreed to it on a trial basis. It took a little setting up, but over the following months I took on increasing amounts of work and before long I was fully back into my stride.

“Not having to face a long rail journey into the City and back has made such a difference. In all, it has added around three hours to my day, which means I can more equally share my time between my career and family life. No more 5.45am starts. My working day typically begins at around 7.30 when I get my two children up, breakfasted and packed off to school. I may then flit around the house with my faithful lambswool duster and carry out a few other household chores before ‘commuting’ to my office in our spare bedroom for the 9.15 video catch-up with my team. From then on, it’s nose to the grindstone until the kids get back from school demanding their tea.

“Of course, working remotely brings its own distractions. I may need to work into the evening and at weekends to make up any lost time dealing with domestic matters. But overall I find I am more focused on my work, re-engaged with it and therefore more productive. The negative pressures that left me lethargic, not wanting to do much and even a little tetchy at the end of the day have long since evaporated, along with the guilt I felt about being this way. I now have bags of energy for sharing activities with my family and friends and for some ‘me’ time doing things I love, like swimming and my community work. Life is so much better.”

But Shia cautioned: “However appealing it may seem, working from home will not suit everyone. You have to remember, you are in a position of trust. Your employer will need to be assured you have the self-discipline, commitment and motivation to function independently…and not sneak off to the golf course or for a pampering at your local beauty spa.”

Bonaro Boschetti, Shia’s team leader at Missing Link Global, said: “Frankly, we were relieved when Shia said she wanted to return to us. Experienced headhunters in our highly specialised field can be a nightmare to replace, especially those with her multi-lingual skills. We all had days when we needed to work from home for reasons unrelated to work, but this, as a permanent arrangement, was a complete departure for us.

“Our decision to agree to Shia’s request was not motivated purely by altruism. The more we thought about it, the more advantages we saw for the business as well. So we set up a 12-month pilot
with Shia with the idea of eventually offering remote working to all 11 of our UK-based employees and perhaps moving out of our expensive office suite. There was much to consider.

Laws on homeworking

“First off, we looked at UK employment law on homeworking. While not exactly a minefield, we had to tread carefully with regard to our contractual obligations, tax implications, data protection, statutory employee entitlements… and, as importantly, workplace safety. For example, when an employee works from home, it becomes their place of work. This means the employer needs to treat the employee’s premises as they would their own.

"Health and Safety says the employer has to carry out a risk assessment of the premises to make sure it is suitable for homeworking. The employer is responsible for any equipment it supplies and for ensuring it is adequately insured for third party risk. It is the employee’s responsibility to rectify any flaws in the home highlighted by the assessment. Once the home workplace is passed as safe, it is down to the employee to keep it that way.”

Other essential checks included verifying that homeworking is covered under the terms of the employee’s home insurance, mortgage or rental agreement. The space used has to have a secondary purpose, perhaps as a guest bedroom, to avoid paying business rates and capital gains tax on the sale of the property.

“In theory, we could have circumnavigated many of our responsibilities by asking our people to work from home on a self-employed basis, which would save us a wad of money,” Boschetti continued. “But this would be fraught with danger under the law. We would effectively be dismissing them from our employment and once in self-employment we could not insist they work exclusively for us.

“For the pilot, we were advised to amend our standard employment contract to reflect Shia’s changed circumstances. Negotiating with her, we reached an agreement that was equitable for both parties.

Smooth transition

“At our cost, we equipped Shia’s home office with all the technology she needed to facilitate her in her work, along with essential security software. Some things, such as a PC, laptop and smartphone, we had already provided. However, we updated her to fast broadband, call-forwarding, webmail and video conferencing to help her stay in contact with her team and clients. Another important addition was a secure VPN (virtual private network) connection for logging in to our office database. Shia was then given training in using the technology and keeping it secure.”

The company’s remaining employees were kept briefed about the trial and on its completion were polled on whether they would be interested in transitioning to homeworking. “Overall, the response was positive,” said Boschetti. “To allay any concerns, we brought in a management consultant to address them on the pros and cons. In the end, everyone for whom it would be practical was won over.

“This left two employees we could not accommodate. We no longer required a receptionist, so we sought a similar position for her elsewhere. Our office administrator was retained as our first point of contact with clients at the small serviced unit we now lease.

“There were a few small teething issues, but generally it has been a win-win…our employees have the flexibility they were seeking and the business has significantly reduced its overheads.”


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