Workplace flexibility is gaining momentum as many more employees and employers explore the advantages of home-working. Do the rewards outstrip the risks?
Around 70% of professionals work remotely — a phenomenon known as telecommuting — at least one day a week. Some 53% work remotely for at least half of the week. These figures, drawn from a survey of 18,000 business professionals across 96 international companies by Switzerland-based serviced office provider IWG, demonstrate an interesting shift in workplace attitudes.
The idea that coming into the office day after day is somehow beneficial to all parties seems to be losing its grip on a workforce that is ready and able to be somewhere else.
The notion of flexibility is supported by another recent survey, this time by US business advisory service, Fundera. It indicates that two-thirds of managers who offer telecommuting flexibility say employees who work from home are overall more productive. It noted too that 86% of employees claim that they’re most productive when they work alone, being able to avoid distractions like unproductive meetings, office gossip and loud office spaces.
Home-working statistics in the US also show that 82% of telecommuters report lower stress levels. The positive effect is to everyone’s benefit – a Stanford University study highlighting that employers offering a work from home option saw staff turnover rates fall by over 50%.
Companies that do not favour a shift to employee flexibility should be wary: 68% of millennial job seekers say a work from home option would greatly influence their interest in working for a company.
For Dr Mark Winwood, Clinical Director for Psychological Health at AXA PPP Healthcare’s Health Services division, enabling employees to work flexibly is advantageous in many ways. Writing on the UK private medical insurer’s website, he says that remote working can decrease overheads and the need for office space, positively affecting operating costs.
“Perhaps more importantly, flexible arrangements can help retain valuable staff, who otherwise might be forced to leave for practical reasons, as well as attracting a wider talent pool of people who may not have considered working for the company otherwise.”
Where flexible working patterns are in place, Winwood adds that businesses are better positioned to operate outside conventional office hours. In terms of hours worked, employees can choose to operate when they feel most productive. In a typical treasury, where there is a need to work across different time zones, that flexibility can help employees recover work-related sleep-loss, helping to preserve employee wellbeing.
“Employers offering flexible working arrangements are likely to see an increase in productivity, engagement and commitment from employees who are given more control of their working life and style of working,” notes Winwood.
However, there is a downside to home-working that must be managed, he warns. “Managers need to be mindful that flexible working could mean their staff do not stop working. Removing the need to physically leave the workplace at the end of the day can tempt workers into working overtime, which managers may not be aware of when their staff are working remotely.”
There is also a risk of increasing ‘presenteeism’, where employees strive to do more hours than necessary, despite perhaps feeling tired or unwell. Winwood advises managers to monitor the time-keeping of employees who are working remotely, ensuring that suitable boundaries between working time and non-working time are put in place.
Working from home can be a lonely pursuit and can mean employees missing out on important interactions with colleagues. There is a risk of home-workers feeling more isolated in general and communicating less with their managers. As a consequence, managers may be less able to identify potential health and wellbeing issues.
“It is important to invite them to company events and briefings and, if practicable, make provision to include them via remote media if it is not possible for them to attend,” advises Winwood.
A CNBC report last year showed that, as might be expected, technology is the primary driver of changing perceptions around locations and working hours. However, it’s not an employee right. In the UK, for example, although legislation on flexible working applies to all employees (providing they have worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks), it only enables them to request it. Employers are not required to grant it, although they must have a sound business reason for rejecting any such request.
Given the relative ease and security with which it can be achieved, and the benefits that it potentially offers employers, it should at least be a discussion on the table for many office-based roles.