Home is where the productive office is

Home is where the productive office is

Low productivity holds back the British economy but there’s a way to get more out of the workforce, as Peter Jackson discovers.

Our post-industrial society is reverting to pre-industrial work patterns. Whereas our parents and grandparents worked in the factory or office, increasingly the distinction between home and workplace is becoming so blurred as to be non-existent. It’s estimated more than 50m employees in Europe spend at least part of their working week working remotely, and that more than 40% of UK businesses are home-based.

This trend towards homeworking or flexible working has been established for some time and seems unaffected by vicissitudes of the economic cycle.

Simon Roberson, BT’s regional partnership director for the North East, says: “In the early 2000s I particularly noticed when talking to other businesses that all the emphasis then was on using flexible working or home working to retain people in the boom years and to keep hold of talented staff.

“With the crash in 2008 many thought that would all end and it would be back to having people in the office where you could keep an eye on what they were doing. But in fact a
lot of businesses saw they could make real hard cost savings on things like property and other running costs by having people working more flexibly.

“So we haven’t seen it reduce – we’ve seen it expand since then. That’s a big trend.’’ It’s also driven, he argues, by the different expectations of younger people entering the workforce. They expect to work flexibly and, having grown up with technology, they know its capabilities.

“They regard sitting in an office for eight or nine hours a day then going home and switching off as slightly bizarre,’’ says Roberson. “They’re used to working at times and in places that suit them and the task that they are doing, rather than a regular pattern of work.’’

The adoption of Cloud computing and the introduction of online flexible software, freeing people from an umbilical attachment to an office and server room, has been a great fillip to homeworking.

Unsurprisingly, some sectors are more suited to homeworking than others. It’s hard to see it applicable to the front end areas of manufacturing or high street retail, although there is no reason why it couldn’t be applied to back office functions. “Anyone mainly office based or working on customer premises can work flexibly and a lot of people across the service sector do,’’ says Roberson.

An obvious advantage to the employer in adopting homeworking is the cost savings. Roberson says BT made a significant reduction in the overall size of its property estate by needing fewer employees working on its own premises.

“More people can use a building if you work flexibly, either through having desks sitting empty because people are out three days a week and they can hot desk. Also there are a lot of things you actually do when you’re in an office, such as meeting colleagues, you don’t have to do at a desk. You can use café spaces, meeting rooms, touch-down areas. So there’s a whole range of more flexible things you can do with office space. That means total space you need is a lot less and that’s a real hard saving.’’

A second major benefit for the employer is employee retention and recruitment, particularly of female staff, for whom homeworking and flexible working can be a huge help in maternity and child care.

“Nearly all of employees come back to work after maternity leave, which is way above national average,’’ says Roberson. “That’s a huge benefit because you’ve invested in recruiting and training those people and you want them to come back and continue their careers with you.’’

Businesses which adopt homeworking typically see productivity gains. “Whenever productivity has been measured, both in BT and in business schools around the world that have studied productivity – and there’s plenty of evidence out there – it usually increases,’’ says Roberson. “Treat employees like responsible adults, then 99% of them will behave like that. They’re not wasting time commuting, which is dead time for both employer and employee, and often employees will give some of that time back to their work.’’

There are also reductions in sick leave and absenteeism. A worker with a bad cold might not want to go into the office but could happily stay at home and do at least part of a day’s work, with the added benefit that they won’t be infecting their co-workers. Fears in the past that not having people under management’s eye would tend to find them slacking have proved wide of the mark. And, as Roberson points out: “It’s perfectly possible to sit in a central office and be very unproductive.’’ He adds: “People do like it [homeworking and flexible working] and they work better and harder and are able to get more done.’’

Dangers? The employer has to guard against staff becoming isolated and cut off from their colleagues and the business. They must be encouraged and be given the tools to keep in touch and keep sharing information.

As a telecom giant it’s no surprise BT has been at the forefront of homeworking and flexible working. It has been since the 1980s and has had a formal policy since the 1990s. “We were using our own technology and we wanted to show what could be done and set an example,’’ Roberson explains.

Now, out of more than 70,000, about 4,000 of its employees are registered as working full time from home. Another 5,000 are classified as `agile’ workers, with no fixed office base and working partly from home.

Home Working 03“In fact, about three quarters of the whole BT workforce is equipped with the technology to allow them to work flexibly and most people do. How much tends to vary depending on their roles. It might mean spending a day or two a week working from home and the other days might be on BT sites or customer sites,’’ Roberson says.

Such flexibility eliminates a lot of commuting time and allows more work travel outside peak times. Roberson adds: “We’ve always taken the view that while all these things benefit the company and the employee, the business must come first. There will always be some jobs better done with people in a fixed location.’’

He cites software development as one where BT favours people working together in teams on site. For an individual BT worker the degree of flexible working can change over time depending on the job they are doing, the stage of their career or the needs of family life. As job roles develop, BT retains the right to `reopen the discussion’ on the employee’s way of working. But homeworking and flexible working are now so embedded in BT’s culture that it is practically the default method of working. There would have to be a reason to adopt an alternative.

“We start from the assumption of flexibility,’’ says Roberson. Earlier on, BT was careful to ensure home workers were involved in socialising and meetings and that team spirit was not lost. “We still need to keep an eye on that and managers need to be conscious of it, but technology has moved on,’’ he adds. “When we first started doing this there was no social media. But now a lot of the way we interact socially is online and through social media.’’

Homeworking and flexible working rely on good telecoms, so it’s clearly something BT is keen to push. Apart from providing telephone and broadband, it also supplies cloud based software, which is particularly useful for smaller businesses, easing expansion and enhancing resilience. It provides consultancy on homeworking and flexible working to larger organisations in the public and private sectors.

Roberson explains: “We help them think about the issues involved in flexible working, and to look at the process and the cultural side as well as the technology. We use experience gained doing it ourselves to provide that kind of service.’’

This is something he emphasises for any businesses thinking to adopt homeworking. “A business must look at it as an overall change. If you just look at the technology on its own, or the HR side on its own, it’s probably not going to work. The property, HR and technology angles all need to work together. Think about the cost savings you can make, but there may also be areas where you need to invest.

“You might be able to make a big property saving if you’ve got a lease renewal coming up, but don’t just take all the savings without spending the money you need to on technology or educating your people and your managers in particular.’’

So, there are issues to be faced, but for most businesses they’re worth examining.
Roberson adds: “There’s so much evidence out there from everyone who has ever done it, and I don’t think there’s ever been a move to flexible working by an employer that hasn’t worked well for both their business and their employees.’’

Home Working 01

Work’s a spare bedroom away

Samantha Campion’s daily commute is only a matter of walking into her spare bedroom.
The BT global services accounts director is one of BT’s homeworkers working with major BT customers which have an overseas interest.

She has been working from home for about nine years. In an average week, she’s home-based for three days – largely on calls or video conferencing  – and visiting clients or in meetings on BT sites for the other two. Campion is married with two children: an eight-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl. The switch to homeworking coincided with the birth of their second child.

She says: “I was office based up to that point and it was the natural next step in my career. But it was also really convenient because I wanted to spend some more time with my family at home.’’

How did she find the transition?

“Difficult. When you’re in an office with lots of people around you and you want some information it’s easy and everything’s accessible. There was a transition I had to go through so I understood how I could do what I did in the office in a home environment. But once you get your head round it, it becomes second nature. I love the peace and quiet now.

“I get far more done. When I was in an office, I’d stop, go off and have my coffee break. Now I’m disciplined and work through to get to where I need to be. Then I take a break. If I need to get a piece of work done, I can just do it without distraction.’’

Before becoming a homeworker Campion worked in South Shields and faced the daily journey to work in those dark days before the second Tyne Tunnel, with all the attendant delays and frustrations. She concedes there are difficulties in maintaining a worklife balance. If the phone rings after the end of the working day, the temptation is often to answer it, switch the computer back on and deal with any issue raised.

“It depends what kind of person you are. It’s not for everyone but it works for me, because I feel I get a lot out of homeworking,’’ she says. “I can drop the kids off at school and there are all the other advantages I get which far outweigh picking up a call late in the evening. But you have to be disciplined and make sure that at six o’clock you go down and have dinner with the family instead of just carrying on. There are days when you have to work late but that would happen in an office anyway.’’

Financially she saves money on petrol, Tyne Tunnel charges, expensive sandwiches and coffees, although the family’s heating bill is appreciably higher. How would she feel if she  had to go back to office working?

“I’d be disappointed. However, I’d be grateful for the time I’ve had while my children have been younger. But the job always comes first.’