Flexible working remains on the rise with an increasing proportion of workers working mainly, or entirely, from home, or remotely out in the field. Even the government is actively exploring the pros and cons. But what exactly are they?
It’s estimated that there are currently about 300 million remote workers worldwide. The latest accurate study-based figures, which are from 2009, suggest that at least 3.9 million remote workers are based in the UK.
This number will now no doubt be much higher now given the widespread availability of wireless, high-speed, broadband, computers, laptops and tablets, mobile telephones and, of course, “smart phones” which are capable of handling all of these functions in one.
Internet based log-in systems allowing workers to access business IT systems from any computer or smart phone, and online data storage cloud systems have also contributed to the popularity of remote working.
These impressive modern technologies have enabled business communications and projects to progress increasingly quickly and cheaply, with workers being more readily available for a greater proportion of the working day.
With the temptations and distractions of television, social media, internet browsing, children, parents, pets and so on, there is generally a sense of apprehension amongst employers that people who work from home do not really achieve much.
But the evidence suggests that remote working arrangements can actually have a number of perks for businesses, particularly when it comes to financial savings. A Westminster forum meeting took place on 10 October 2013 to explore this.
Overhead business costs like rental fees and utility bills can be significantly reduced if there is no longer a need to have a physical office space, or if a much smaller space is required. This can in turn also result in savings to payroll costs, where there may no longer be a need to employ an office manager or other office support personnel.
Workers who work remotely tend to have a reduced need to travel – potentially saving them and the business time, expense and even stress as anyone who has travelled the M25 or the M62 during rush hour will appreciate. Remote workers will also not be exposed to general noise and distractions that a busy office environment can bring.
Modern technologies may also help to improve communication and team spirit within a business. This is particularly relevant to larger organisations and field-based roles such as sales or HR, where teams at different ends of the country may otherwise not interact much.
Despite the common assumptions, all of these factors are likely to result in increased productivity and help to create a motivated and engaged set of workers.
Those who might be feeling disengaged or looking to move on (perhaps due to family responsibilities, relocation or health issues) are more likely to stay if there are flexible arrangements enabling remote working.
That said, to get the most out of remote workers and to avoid the stereotype, it is important that employers take some proactive steps at the outset.
Firstly, employers should ensure that remote workers have a suitable contract which reflects the practicalities of working remotely and ensures that the business is protected in case there are problems in the future.
The contract should be clear about the worker’s primary place of work, which may well be their home address. It would be prudent to spell out that the worker may have to travel to meetings, appraisals, training sessions and HR issues, to ensure that they attend.
It’s also crucial to ensure that remote workers understand that they have a personal obligation to carry out their duties for a certain number of hours per working day, and that any falsification of working time will be dealt with as a disciplinary matter.
Similarly, remote workers are personally responsible for taking proper rest breaks, given that the employer will be unable to physically monitor and enforce working time on a day-to-day basis.
On a practical note, employers might want to consider introducing electronic timesheets or something similar to assist with policing the working time of remote workers. It may also be worth making arrangements for spot-checking and home visits to avoid manipulation of the system and a sudden increase in Bargain Hunt viewer ratings.
Another issue to think carefully about is the property that a worker may be provided with, or required to use, in order to carry out their role remotely. If the business will provide the technology and equipment, who will be responsible for insuring them in case they are damaged, lost or stolen from the worker’s home?
Whatever the decision on the provision and protection of property, it should be clearly documented in the worker’s contract. Detailed arrangements for the maintenance of any business property provided, and the recovery of it after a worker leaves, should also be clearly set out.
Perhaps most importantly, robust policies and procedures should also be established to ensure that business confidentiality is maintained.
Employers should give particular consideration to the ways in which sensitive information ought to be stored by remote workers. A locked filing cabinet for any hard copy documentation is by far the safest option.
It’s a bit trickier where the sensitive data is electronic, particularly where a remote worker proposes to use their own device and/or facilities to perform their duties and even more so where other family members or visitors could have access to them.
To counter this, a thorough IT and Communications Policy should be put in place to make sure the standards and expectations are clear and, of course, enforced. In such a policy, an employer should ensure that they have an express right to monitor the online, telephone and email activity of their remote workforce including where workers may use their own equipment.
In conclusion, whilst there are a number of potential pitfalls for a business, it’s clear that remote working can in fact be worthwhile if careful prior planning takes place and protective measures are put in place.
If in any doubt, employers should take specialist legal advice before rolling out or changing a home-working or other flexible working scheme. With a little thought and planning we are sure there are rewards to recoup.
If you have aany questions please contact Victoria Clark in our employment team - firstname.lastname@example.org.
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