Remote working opportunities and challenges
Remote working is one aspect of organisational life which is currently undergoing profound change.
Even as businesses progressed through the digital era, convention dictated that a company’s strategic objectives were best met by gathering all employees at a specific location – an office, a factory – and using layers of supervisors and managers to ensure work was performed to the required standard. Within this model, remote working was largely seen as a concession to the employee asking for it. Many businesses regarded – and still regard – remote working as an arrangement less ideal than being present and correct at work.
Extensive research conducted by the IoD has confirmed that an increasing number of companies are exploring the opportunities and challenges presented by remote working. In May 2019, the IoD Policy Team published a report on remote working in SMEs. The report’s main focus was on the wellbeing of remote workers, but also provided a wealth of detail on the place of remote working in business strategy.
Remote working – An employer’s duties
An employee in the UK who has been working for the same employer for at least 26 weeks can request flexible working arrangements.
Types of flexible working include:
- Job sharing
- Remote working
- Compressed hours
- Annualised hours
- Staggered hours
- Phased retirement
Upon receipt of a flexible working request, the employer has three months to deliver a formal response.
If the employer rejects the flexible working request, there must be a supporting business case for the decision.
Employees can only make one application for flexible working in any 12 month period.
If the employer agrees to the flexible working request, and the request involves remote working, UK law still holds the employer responsible for the health and safety of the employee at the remote location. If the employee works predominantly on a client’s site, the contract between the company and the client needs to include health and safety arrangements and responsibilities. Any formal arrangements need to be written in the contract between the employer and employee, or a written arrangement document needs to be produced. Informal or ad-hoc arrangements are not required to be written in the contract, but should be regularly reviewed.
A guide to best practice in the processing of flexible working requests – for both employers and employees – is available from ACAS.
Why employers offer remote working
The IoD Policy Team has extensively polled IoD members on the subject of flexible working. Several interesting themes emerged.
An IoD membership survey conducted in October 2018 indicated that 73 per cent of SME employers offer flexible working (which can include remote working) for full-time employees. The same survey showed the employers’ motivations to be a mix of commercial concerns and the duty of care towards employees. In order, the most common reasons for an employer to embrace flexible working are:
- To improve employee work-life balance
- To help retain staff
- To attract a wider pool of talent
- To reduce the commuting burden
- To facilitate care responsibilities at home
- To help reduce overheads
- To help reduce absenteeism and sickness
- Other reason
- To make it easier to employee individuals with disabilities
Improved work-life balance may be the predictable winner, but it is immediately followed by two strategic necessities for a successful business – attracting the right people, and holding onto them. The UK employment market is tight, and the competition for talent is intense. Flexible working has become a key part of the package to attract and retain the best employees.
Using remote working to reduce the commuting burden on employees is also worthy of comment. The majority of people used to live close to their places of work. The situation today is very different – the cost of housing and changes to housing stock, especially in large cities, mean more and more people (especially parents) live a significant distance from their place of work. Commutes are getting longer and more stressful – as rail commuters well know. Remote working supports employee wellbeing and can make the employer more attractive to prospective employees across a wider area. IoD research shows that 42 per cent of IoD members offering flexible working include reduced commuting among their reasons for doing so.
Commuting is also expensive. As of May 2019, a rail season ticket between Cambridge and London (which encompasses a large area popular with working parents) is nudging £5,000. The majority of Britons still commute by car, and several studies have noted an increase in journey times.
Allowing flexible working to facilitate an employee’s care responsibilities (the fifth most popular reason in the above list) does expose a potential trap which an employer must be aware of. Caring for a dependent (a young child, an older relative) cannot occupy the same time as work. Flexible working in terms of hours can accommodate care and work, but remote working without adjusted hours cannot.
Although reducing overheads by having employees work remotely appears to be a low priority for business in general (the sixth most popular reason), IoD research shows that it is given more importance by start-ups. Over one half (57 per cent) of start-up entrepreneurs responding to an IoD survey said that reducing costs (mainly office-related) was a key driver in the decision to offer remote working.
Issues with remote working
The same IoD member survey which measured the reasons why employers offer flexible working also recorded the reasons why some employers do not:
- Flexible working does not fit the business model
- Quality of work will suffer
- Employees have not requested flexible working
- Other reason
- Lack of technical facility
- Insufficient time to explore flexible working
Obviously, there are commercial activities which require employees to be onsite at fixed times. 71 per cent of IoD members who do not offer flexible working say the issue is that their operating model does not allow it.
The second most common concern – that quality will suffer – shines a light on the issue of trust. IoD research suggests that one third of employers are concerned that employees working remotely won’t do as good a job and/or may not use their time effectively.
ACAS has pulled together research into how trusted remote workers are, concluding that there is a cultural dimension to UK attitudes towards remote working. A 2013 survey commissioned by Microsoft indicated that 73 per cent of UK workers did not trust remote working colleagues to match the effort of office-based employees. One pan-European survey offered a contrasting view from Denmark, where 80 per cent of workers trusted their remote working colleagues to deliver.
Remote working is made possible by the internet, and the expense and complexity of setting up remote access to a corporate network deters some SMEs (17 per cent of respondents to an IoD survey). There is also the problem of slow broadband speeds which can make remote working a frustrating undertaking. An important strategic concern is data security – sensitive files may be sent beyond the core corporate network, presenting a significant risk.
Problems affecting remote workers
The main issue affecting remote workers is inherent in the very concept – the risk that workers develop feelings of isolation, of not being involved in discussions and decision making, of not being a part of the workplace culture.
As the IoD’s factsheets on mental wellbeing at work note, many workers do not discuss a deteriorating mental wellbeing situation at work. Often, a line manager detects changes in an employee’s behaviour and initiates the first conversation. But if the employee and manager are not in the same space, the first symptoms of a mental wellbeing issue may go unnoticed.
One common solution to overcome in part the risk of isolation – and also see how a remote employee is doing – is mandatory ‘in office’ days. This ensures that remote workers have some degree of physical interaction with colleagues, managers and the general ambience of the workplace.
Studies into the effectiveness of remote working have often detected a double-edged outcome – remote workers often work longer hours and are more productive than their office-based colleagues. This might appear to be a nice problem to have from an employer’s point of view – but how is the remote worker actually functioning? Is it steady sustainable effort? Or are they frantically working long hours to stay on top of things? Knowing the answer requires effective management of remote workers.
Managing remote workers
Treat each remote worker on an individual basis
Each employee will have their own reasons for working remotely. These reasons should be a key part of the remote working plan design.
Set clear expectations
Employers need to provide a clear statement of what they expect a remote worker to achieve with their time. The employer should then measure what is accomplished, and not obsess about how each minute is used.
Ensure the all systems are reliable
The remote worker’s experience of company IT systems should be the same as for on-site workers. Connectivity and the tools to facilitate remote working must be thoroughly tested. The workflow used for on-site working should also be tested in the remote setting, both for operability and unintended consequences.
Maintain regular contact
Remote working does not benefit from the many direct and indirect cues delivered in the on-site environment. There are no water cooler moments; there is no reassuring eye contact. Managers used to employing a hands-on ‘nip and tuck’ approach throughout the working day will need to switch to a structured set of clear communications and agreed check-ins (see ‘Set Clear Expectations’ above). Structure is important since sticking to an agreed communications schedule should prevent any drift towards micro-management. Of course, any unexpected developments should be immediately communicated to remote staff.
Office-based employees benefit from structured and casual contact with managers. This creates a common awareness of what needs doing. Remote workers on the other hand will be in a state of uncertainty for so long as their email or phone call goes unanswered. Therefore, make responding to remote workers the priority. On-site employees hovering for a ‘quick word’ can see you are aware of their needs, and come after.
Avoid confusion and multi-tasking
Remote working offers distraction-free application to specific tasks. It is important to spare remote employees from ‘noise’ which can be especially disorientating in the remote setting. One of the main sources of noise are ‘Reply All’ scattergun emails which can have the remote employee asking “What priority does my manager give this issue?…Am I expected to respond?”.
Essentially, the effective management of remote employees requires trusting your employees, having confidence in your processes, sticking to your communications schedule and not resorting to back-and-forth emails.
IoD members can request Practical Law’s Homeworking practice note and template Homeworking Policy. These resources cover all relevant issues – employment law, contracts, tax, insurance, practicalities.
Employees who work from home – This IoD factsheet brings together the legal and practical issues to be worked through before an employee starts remote working.
ACAS several online resources available to help businesses management remote working effectively.
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