In many settings, it has almost become expected that a company offers homeworking opportunities. In fact, a recent article written for Forbes notes that the absence of such an arrangement signifies that a workplace is ‘lagging behind’ in new cultural norms.
Proponents of homeworking cite many benefits to giving employees the option of working from home, one of them being an increase in productivity. One person who believes in the power of remote work is Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics at Stanford University. Bloom carried out a study with employees from Ctrip, a Chinese travel company, and found that one-third of the reason for increased productivity among the employees who volunteered to work from home over the period of his nine-month study, compared to those who remained in the office, was that the remote workers were in much quieter environments. “The other two-thirds can be attributed to the fact that the people at home worked more hours,” Bloom says. “They started earlier, took shorter breaks, and worked until the end of the day. They had no commute. They didn’t run errands at lunch. Sick days for employees working from home plummeted.”
Up until now, discourse surrounding this issue was largely positive. But Esther Canonico, writing for The Guardian, suggests otherwise. Canonico, a PhD candidate in employment relations and organisation behaviour at LSE, wrote in an article published last week that, for a number of reasons, working from home can actually be detrimental not only to an individual’s career, but also for companies that are offering this alternative.
She states that her research, which explored attitudes among 500 staff and managers towards flexible working, revealed that “after a prolonged period of remote working, employees no longer viewed working from home as a privilege and therefore behaved no differently to office-based staff, producing similar results. In fact, some employees began to harbour ill-feeling towards their employers as they felt they were not supported enough.”
Whereas many suggest expense saving as one benefit of homeworking, Canonico says that remote workers could find themselves spending more than if they were in the office, with utility bills eventually racking up. This could lead to employees becoming resentful that company costs have decreased while theirs have increased.
“Aside from additional financial support,” says Canonico, “remote workers craved professional support as well. Home workers had less communication with office staff, limited face-to-face interactions and, over time, found it harder to integrate with staff at the office. Reduced engagement, limited communication and a lack of opportunities for knowledge sharing stunted their professional progression.”
Despite her findings that working from home could be detrimental to both careers and companies, Canonico does believe that there is a way to ensure that remote working remains effective. This involves three steps: (1) ‘managing expectations’ so that everybody involved is aware of what is expected from each party and how exactly the arrangement will work; (2) a clear communication strategy being implemented so that there is regular contact between the office and home workers – this will ensure that everybody is on the same page and that employees are still able to work as a team, regardless of whether they are in the same physical environment; (3) the offering of support in a way that makes remote workers feel valued and appreciated.
Canonico’s findings seem to place the responsibility of an effective home working arrangement largely on companies. In reality, there are lots that employees can also do to ensure that they remain efficient and productive, even when working from home. For a start, they can create a dedicated work space in their home that is free of distractions. Setting clear goals and working at the times they are most productive (including early mornings and late evenings – if the job allows) is also a great way to make the most of working away from the office.
It is true that such flexibility is becoming the norm in many professional environments, but whether or not it works depends on both parties. Although many top companies have promoted this kind of flexible working, other have discouraged it. In 2013, Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo) ordered that all remote workers either return to their closest office or quit, in a move that aimed to increase collaboration. At the time, Mayer said that “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”
For executives that are wary of giving their employees the unrestrained freedom that goes with working from home, a welcome compromise could be to allow employees to work remotely in extenuating circumstances, like on days when employees are mildly sick or are having trouble with childcare. Some flexibility is better than no flexibility at all, and meeting workers in the middle like this could have a hugely positive effect on employee loyalty, retention and engagement.
Ultimately it is up to company directors and decision-makers to decide what is right for their own organisation. Either way, it is clear that flexible working in one form or another is a topic that’s not going to go away any time soon.