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Is home working a skiver's paradise?
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The advent of the internet has led to a number of major shifts in the way businesses operate, by breaking the link between a physical presence in the office and productive work. In many companies, employees are now able to base themselves anywhere they have access to a broadband connection. They can use cloud computing services to access files and documents from external locations and utilise online collaboration tools to remain in contact with managers and colleagues.
With employees able to work productively away from the office, the last decade has seen a significant rise in the number of people working from home. Employees can set up their own study in which to work, and with remote access to company networks, this replicates the office environment. So in many cases, employees can do exactly the same job as in the office but without the time and cost pressures of commuting. As well as helping staff members to improve their work-life balance, this can potentially improve morale and boost overall productivity which is often the goal of HR managers.
Home working enables business continuity
In some instances, companies have embraced home working en masse in a bid to overcome practical difficulties which jeopardised output. One example of this was during the Big Freeze of January 2010, when around a quarter of UK workers were unable to travel into work due to severe snow and ice. Those who had a PC and broadband connection were able to log onto to their work email account, and where cloud services were available, continue with their normal work. This helped many companies to minimise the impact of the wintry storms and steal a march on their rivals.
Many business leaders are expecting further disruption this summer as London hosts the summer Olympic Games. Companies based in the capital face the prospect of gridlocked roads and railways, making it difficult for employees to commute to work and back. With millions of sports fans set to flock to the city during late July and August, companies are eager to find ways of minimising the impacts on their operations. Unsurprisingly, home working is being viewed as one of the weapons in their armoury.
How can home working help this summer?
Employers believe that by allowing staff members to work from home, they can reduce the risk of their people getting stuck in jams or queues on the Tube. Similarly, they will not be arriving for work in a dishevelled condition following a stressful rush across a crowded city. Instead, employees can simply switch their home PCs on, an hour later than they would normally set off for work. And they can finish work at normal time and get straight on with their evening.
When working from home, employees may even be able to keep up to date with the latest Olympic action. Having a TV or radio on in the background may not always be conducive to productivity, but employers need to be realistic during the two week sporting festival. If their employees are interested in the Games, the chances are they will either have tickets or at least be planning to keep up to date with the proceedings. So if employers take a hard-line approach, some workers will be encouraged to take unauthorised absence. Where this is the case, the costs are likely to be far greater than if employees take ten minutes out to watch an event they are interested in. Allowing staff to work from home, and tune in to the Olympics at their own discretion, should help limit absence, boost morale and ensure that work still gets done.
But is home working 'a skiver's paradise'?
Clearly, as recent media reports suggest, not everyone is in favour of widespread home working during the Olympics. Earlier this month, London Mayor Boris Johnson claimed that the practice could be regarded as a "skiver's paradise" during the summer Games. "Some people will see the Games as an opportunity to work from home, in inverted commas," he commented. "We all know that is basically sitting wondering whether to go down to the fridge to hack off that bit of cheese before checking your emails again. I don't want to see too many of us doing that."
The Mayor's comments sparked a lively debate as to the merits of working from home, with critics accusing Johnson of ignoring the potential benefits of the practice. But indeed, he does make an important point, that home working should be with a view to maximising productivity as opposed to slacking off. In order to ensure it does benefit UK companies, managers may need to keep tabs on their workers and monitor their output. If individuals are shown to work less effectively from home than in the office, they may wish to review their stance and call them back in. But otherwise, they should recognise that home working can work in the favour of their company and adopt a more 'hands-off' approach.
Many employees will embrace home working this summer, but in essence it is up to individual workers to influence whether this is a one-off or a precursor to wider change in operational practice. Should employees prove to be productive while home working, employers may be more flexible at other times, such as over the Christmas period or during a football World Cup. But if employees do slack off, and get less done than they would in the office, their bosses will be well within their rights to limit such opportunities in the future.
Posted by Jon Aspinell
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