Working from home

An estimated 14.1 million people in Britain want flexibility in their working hours or location, equivalent to almost half the working population. But an analysis of 3.5m job adverts found just 6.2% mentioned a degree of flexibility, indicating a gap between employee desires and what employs are actually delivering when it comes to working methods. In fact there are a surprising amount of employers who don’t accommodate flexible, remote and home, working because they feel it’s just too hard to get right.

There’s plenty of evidence documenting the benefits of flexible working and there are plenty of organisations that evangelise about how ‘work should be something we do, not somewhere we go’ and offer completely flexible working to employees. Yet despite this there are many others that fear a loss of culture, productivity and motivation among teams that are ‘too flexible’.

How effective are traditional tools?

Personally, I am all for flexible working and it’s something I have benefitted greatly from. However, I know that not all businesses are in agreement. For example, an infographic from Esna that I saw the other day, indicates that a mere 7% of the EMEA labour force spends one work day at home every week. I think that some of the reticence to offer flexible working is actually a result of reliance on technology that doesn’t actually help human interaction.

Thanks to advances in mobile, internet and collaboration technologies, the past decade has witnessed an unprecedented pace of change in business communications. Technology has enabled the rapid rise of remote working but in some companies has created a culture of disengagement. It’s easy to see how this has happened: teams that rely purely on email for communication are one example. While communications tools and mobile technology have done wonders to fill geographical gaps, in the past some of them were optimised for information exchange, rather than human contact and have done little to engage employees or allow them to truly collaborate.

Over-reliance on communications that lack a social element can lead to disengaged employees and there is a proven link between this and lower rates of productivity. So what digital savvy methods of communication work best for a flexible and dispersed workforce?

Engaging with video, gamification and social collaboration methods

Increasing numbers of businesses are making the most of the continuous advancements in unified communications (UC) by opting integrating a wider range of functionality into a single in-box. As a result employees can now freely embrace collaboration technologies, such as video conferencing and social media, and new access methods like wearables devices. For the virtual workforce, being able to instantly message a colleague or jump on a video call just as easily as they would send an email, creates a more engaged workforce and stops remote workers from hiding behind email.

Additionally organisations are starting to use social collaboration tools such as enterprise social networks to encourage more natural conversations between workers. As employees are used to this type of interface and functionality from their personal lives (think Facebook and Instagram) user adoption rates for these technologies are very high.

Some businesses have created avatar environments to make enterprise communications more exciting and engaging. One example of this is Ava who helps users find their way around the Avaya website.

Looking ahead, in the next couple of years I think that virtual reality is going to become another business communication tool. The technology has moved out of the gaming industry and is becoming much more mainstream. It’s already starting to revolutionise the sports fan experience and if we’ve learned anything from trends like the consumerisation of IT, it won’t be long before virtual reality takes the enterprise world by storm too and with phone attachments like Google Cardboard, home workers or those in different locations will be able to have more than an immersive conversation or meeting with colleagues in a different place. Again it will be the human touch that virtual reality offers, that will make this a successful business communication tool.

So to those flexible working ne’er sayers I say this: the technology tools that enable flexible working have evolved enormously in recent years. Video conferencing, for example, has moved from offering a rather unreliable, jittery service to, high-quality, multi-party video collaboration available across a range of devices from your desktop PC to your smartphone and tablet. It’s true that the ‘first generation’ of web-linked business communication tools aimed at increasing productivity and enabling flexi-working didn’t always help as much as we thought they could. But we are now seeing a new wave of business communication tools that really are increasing productivity, because they are humanising technology. These tools are designed to unite people by delivering communication and collaboration solutions that are so simple they become transparent.

By enabling engaged and productive employees, through a considered communications strategy, work can be something we do because it’s our passion, not somewhere we go. Thanks to these technologies flexible working has become a real option for all workers who want a work-life balance and I urge all organisations to proactively support their employees by seeking out their working preferences before those employees go somewhere that does offer flexibility.

By Simon Culmer, Managing Director of Avaya UK