16/07/2014

By Mandy Rutter is a psychologist for Validium, a provider of psychological health services,

By 2015 it’s predicted more than 37% of the workforce globally will be ‘mobile workers’, based from home or travelling away from the HQ (or 1.3 billion employees, according to IDC figures).

As more businesses look for ways to streamline overheads and increase productivity, more home-based working can be seen as an easy win. An RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) study last year found that employees with flexible working arrangements – involving more home-working – reported an average gain of 5 hours per week, worth £4,200 per annum per employee; reducing the amount of time people spent at their workstations also brought savings. It also reported that flexible workers felt more valued and trusted by their organisations and were more motivated as a result, that it gave more opportunities for fulfilling parenting roles, reduced stress, and more chance to exercise and live a healthier life.

This rosy picture doesn’t perhaps reflect the full range of experiences, or delve deep enough into the realities of changes to ways of working overtime. Home-working involves a fundamental shift in work practices, day-to-day experiences and relationships, raising a host of issues around motivation, communication, team dynamics and management for the firm.

The first rule is that home-working isn’t going to be right for everyone. Firms need to think about individual personalities and who is suited to home-working, and whether they have the skills to do it. It’s important not to generalise but to explore the individual needs and requirements of the person. An extroverted person may feel isolated and struggle with working alone for long periods. This might affect their work detrimentally, but alternatively may enable them to get more work done as they don’t have the social distractions of the workplace. However, a quieter, more reflective person may be very productive at home, without distractions, and may not feel the need the join the social activities of the team. The drawbacks of this are that the team may miss the expertise, knowledge and experience of that individual. The most frequent issue that we hear on our Employee Assistance Programme helpline is the isolation and lack of support that home-workers feel. They often feel that they are not cared about, and that their only value is their on-line presence. There is a sense of the soul of the person being lost in home-working.

A key challenge is maintaining team-working. For example, competition between colleagues can be very beneficial for encouraging motivation and drive. This is difficult to replicate at home. Collaboration and creativity can be difficult at home. Managing conflict can be very difficult with home workers as messages sent via email can be misinterpreted, particularly if colleagues are feeling stressed, isolated and paranoid. Leadership and role-modelling can be difficult to develop at home and finally, warmth, support, care and praise can be very difficult to provide with home workers.

Firms and their staff can reap rewards from home-working as long as they look beyond the cost-savings, and consider and account for the implications for individuals. For example:

Run a trial period: make home-working an option to explore and discuss rather than leaving the move purely in the hands of employees. Take time to evaluate the pros and cons with the employee at the start of a trial and after they’ve had a chance to experience what it really means.

Explicit targets measurement: measuring output, progress against targets, levels of achievement and productivity – and making this transparent for manager and employee – is a way of providing a sense of clear direction and reassurance for employees that they’re doing what’s needed and prevent detachment and lack of motivation.

Focus on wellbeing: include a measure of wellbeing and health within the targets set, so whilst productivity may increase at home, personal isolation may go down. It is the responsibility of the employee and manager to weigh these up together.

Encourage staff to compartmentalise: strict boundaries are required, for both time and space. Having a separate work location is essential, with a door and cupboard that can be closed and even locked when not in use. Routines of work can still be applied at home, and personal rules can help (around having breaks, managing interruptions, making social visits, cooking meals).