The death of office working?

1st of October 2012
The death of office working?

Is the office set to become redundant? Well, perhaps not – but its role at the heart of business is certainly undergoing radical change with the emergence of a new technology-led trend. Hartley Milner reports on the rapid rise of flexible working.

The great office breakout is unstoppable. Desk-bound employees across a range of industries are throwing off their shackles for the freedom to work smarter, more flexibly and to enrich their lives.

The revolution sweeping through the world of work has been sparked by huge strides
in communication technology that are opening up new opportunities for employers and their people.

Thanks to innovations such as WiFi (wireless fidelity), video conferencing, netbooks and new generation smartphones, the traditional ‘nine to five’ is giving way to a less rigid regime that better recognises changes in the way we do business and the demands of family life.

For the entrepreneur on the move, the world is now not only their oyster but also virtual office, enabling them to electronically wheel and deal from a hotel room, cybercafé or back of a taxi – in fact anywhere with internet access or a cell phone signal.

The same cutting-edge technology is also liberating employees to spend at least part of the time working from home. More of us are turning our backs on stressful, time-consuming and costly daily commutes for the chance to achieve something closer to the elusive work-life balance we all crave.

New technology

“People had been working from home periodically for many decades, saying they needed quality work time without constant interruptions,” said Carl Fredricsson, a Stockholm-based independent adviser on flexible working. “This may have been true, but there was always a suspicion back at the office that the employee was moonlighting or out on the golf course.

“Homeworking really started to take off in Europe in the ’90s when new technology enabled people to be monitored more closely away from the office. Employers, meanwhile, were coming under increasing pressure from national and EU employment legislation, the unions and their people to be a little more understanding of their employees’ need and right to have a life outside the office. Then employers became aware that flexible working could have benefits for them too.”

Sweden tops the homeworkers’ league in Europe, with 51 per cent of people basing themselves at home at least one day a week. Germany is fifth in the table (34 per cent), while Italy and the United Kingdom share bottom spot (24 per cent). The figure for the UK is surprising because it also has the highest number of employees who want to work from home. Many European governments have brought in legislation giving workers the legal right to ask for flexible hours, but employers are not always legally obliged to grant their request.

Wherever it has been taken up, flexible working is having a positive influence, according to a survey by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound). A significant 73 per cent of respondents said it gave them greater job satisfaction and 61 per cent of managers also noticed benefits. But employers gain too, from:

• Improved employee retention – homeworking can help retain working parents with childcare demands or people unable to work conventional hours
• A wider pool of applicants from which to recruit, including disabled people who may prefer to work from home or cannot cope in an office environment
• Possible improved productivity with employees able to work with fewer interruptions and saving time on commuting
• Increased staff motivation resulting from reduced stress and sickness levels
• Savings on office space, equipment, staff facilities and energy use
• The ability to locate sales staff near clients rather than all together in a single office.

Good for environment

Another winner is the environment. Clearly, fewer commutes mean less congested roads and lower vehicle emissions, helping governments meet CO2 reduction targets.

Working from home is not practical in all types of work, of course. It most favours activities such as telesales, marketing, customer service and consultancy and professional services like accountancy and HR administration. Writing, editing, research and translation are other areas where it can work, along with some aspects of IT employment. And even where it is appropriate homeworking throws up hurdles such as:

• Difficulty managing homeworkers and monitoring their performance
• Possible deterioration of employees’ skills and work quality
• Costs of providing training and equipment, including modifications to meet health and safety standards and the needs of disabled people
• Difficulty maintaining the development of staff and upgrading their skills
• Data security risks
• Increased telecommunications costs
• Communication problems and sense of isolation among homeworkers
• Maintaining a team spirit.

Employers need to be aware they have many of the same responsibilities for homeworkers as for office-based staff. These may include having business and liability insurance and making changes to the employee’s terms and conditions to protect their rights.

The employer is also likely to be responsible for providing, installing and maintaining all the homeworker’s equipment. Basic kit may include a workstation, computer and software, printer and fax, email and broadband, dedicated phone line and general office supplies.

For security reasons, kitting up a homeworker with dedicated equipment is preferable to them using their personal computer, according to Fredricsson. “Security is just as important when working remotely as in an office environment – in fact, more so because the employer does not have the same controls over an off-site system,” he said.

“Precautions need to be taken against the theft of hardware in break-ins as well as viruses compromising intellectual property and other data on machines. As with any type of remote working - whether at home or in a hotel room - anti-virus and firewall software need to be installed on users’ PCs, complete with passwords to lock out intruders. Consider cloud computing – it enables businesses to store information in a secure, off-site location to prevent data loss.”

However, employees need not work exclusively from home. Splitting their time between home and the workplace may be the most practical and productive solution, which also serves to keep them ‘in the loop’.

A business that has proven the worth of flexi-working is brewing giant Heineken. Phil Collard, head of facilities Heineken UK, said that although the company no longer has people working exclusively from home a high percentage of its workforce does operate flexibly in some way.

Different locations

“We have what we call flexible office workers who are based in an office but due to the nature of their work need to visit different locations,” he explained. “These people are in team management roles and senior commercial and HR positions etc and have all the equipment they need to do their job on the move, such as a laptop, BlackBerry and iPad. They may choose, for instance, to start the day in an office environment, then meet up with a customer, perhaps do some work from a coffee shop and then in the afternoon go home to check their emails.

“Then we have a field-based workforce – mainly sales representatives – who, unlike the flexible office workers, never come into the office. These people work as part of regional sales teams and they too have been fully equipped by the company to work remotely, effectively from their home. We trust them to manage their time to the best effect; to increase their sales and maintain their business in their region.”

Work-life balance

He said employees welcome the flexibility that enables them to strike a better balance with life outside work. “For instance, someone may have done a sales promotion at a pub until it closes at 11pm or midnight and then the following day they may decide to work from home, perhaps taking the kids to school or attending to other family responsibilities before getting down to work,” said Collard.

“The benefits for the company are that we have a more contented workforce that is flexible enough to adapt to changes in working practices. We have also reduced our office footprint over a number of years. In Edinburgh, for example, we have made significant savings in our office footprint.

“But it’s not all about savings – we have found that having more flexible office accommodation also helps improve the energy and vibe of a building, ultimately boosting morale and team working.”

Heineken has recently opened a fully equipped sales and marketing hub in central London that is a permanent base for some employees and a place to meet up for others. “We have a huge number of people using this space – it’s buzzing,” said Collard. “People may come in just to print off some emails or have a coffee with a colleague, or to meet a customer to showcase our brands and the company.

“That’s the way we see things developing. We will have these hubs in major employment centres like London and Edinburgh because we recognise the need for human interaction. We think it’s important that people can interact on a social and team level, whichever way they work.”


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