Is home working all it’s cracked up to be?

Flexible working is often perceived as a benefit to employers and employees alike. But is it really such a good idea?

By Ernest Richardson

Since the late 1990s there has been a clear trend throughout Europe and the US towards flexible working.

    Staff with freedom to work remotely tend to be more productive and are more likely to stick with their job.  

The common wisdom is that if you give employees flexibility about when and where they work, you empower them to make smarter use of their time, to go with the flow and deliver more for your business.

That has been the thinking behind the government’s drive to promote flexible working throughout the UK. In 2018, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) set up a taskforce to encourage flexible working among employers. The initiative was supported by high-profile organisations such as the CIPD, CBI and TUC.

From an employer’s perspective, the benefits of flexible working are clear. Staff with freedom to work remotely tend to be more productive and are more likely to stick with their job. They are also more likely to work additional hours in order to complete a task.

For employees, the positive feeling appears to be mutual. A survey by Investors in People found that almost a third of people would value flexible working above a pay rise in terms of employee benefits.

The reasons for their enthusiasm are obvious: if you work from home you miss the commute, have flexibility about when and where you work, and can fit working commitments around other activities such as sport, childcare or socialising.

And, of course, you have the distinct advantage of being able to spend the day in your pyjamas. Unless you have a video conference call, obvs.

But further research collated by Investors in People casts a shadow of doubt over the advantages to employees of flexible working.

For example, a survey by Orange Business Services as long ago as 2007 found that 40 per cent of homeworkers didn’t feel as if they had more time by virtue of their working pattern. What is more, 45 per cent felt they were working more hours for less, because their working lives eat into evenings and weekends.

Another insight comes from an international study of flexible workers, which found that 41 per cent considered themselves “highly stressed”. When compared to the 25 per cent of on-site employees feeling comparable stress levels, it suggests the freedom of working remotely may not be such a boon, after all.

“The main issue with remote working is whether or not it’s sustainable for the job you do,” says Peter Foy, a director at Just Recruitment Group Ltd. “In our industry, for example, it wouldn’t really be possible to let employees work from home. So much of what we do involves face-to-face meetings, and working in an office where you have access to databases and colleagues’ intelligence and creativity.

    “The main issue with remote working is whether or not it’s sustainable for the job you do,” ...  

“In fact,” he continues, “I think it could be quite isolating to work in our sector without coming to an office.”

This mention of isolation is pertinent. For many home-workers, the biggest challenge is overcoming feelings of loneliness. As irritating as the daily commute can be, it may be a price worth paying for the sake of interacting with colleagues during the working day.

“There is certainly a sense in which chatting to colleagues makes you better able to do your job,” says Mr Foy. “While it may reduce productivity in the sense of outputs, I think it can enhance an organisation’s culture in other ways.

“For example, I find conversations with my co-workers stimulating and wide-ranging. They add value to my working efforts and spark ideas. It may mean I get less done, but at a deeper level, I think it makes me better at my job.”

This may explain why many people – especially men – regard flexible working as career-limiting, as research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2013 makes plain. Ambitious employees tend to resist flexible working when it has an impact on face time with colleagues, through fear that it will impair their chances of promotion, or send a signal about a lack of hunger to progress.

The report states that large US companies including Yahoo, Bank of America and Best Buy have scaled back their remote-working offer, believing that the costs outweigh the benefits.

“It is certainly a mixed picture,” concludes Mr Foy. “There will clearly be some industries, some companies, and some employees for whom remote and flexible working patterns make all kinds of sense. But it’s important not to accept its benefits uncritically. For many, the discipline of a daily trip to the office may be just what they need to succeed.”

© 2019 Just Recruitment Group Ltd

Published: 22 November 2019

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