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A Desk Too Far?: The Case for Remote Working

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Marieke Guy examines both the benefits and the pitfalls of working remotely from the standpoint of both employees and their organisation.

Introduction: A New Way of Working

In the 21st Century work has changed. Remote working or teleworking [1] is an employment arrangement in which employees can complete their work from a location other than their office base, be it their home, a sub-office or even the local coffee shop. As Woody Leonhard puts it in the Underground Guide to Telecommuting, "Work is becoming something you do, not a place you go to." [2]

Modern employment law now offers more flexibility of working hours. From April 2003, all employees with children under 6 years old, or children under 18 with disabilities, have a legal right to ask to work flexibly. In April 2007 this legislation was extended to employees with responsibility for caring for spouses and partners; while in November 2007 the Prime Minister announced plans to extend these provisions to those parents with older children. Further details are available from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform [3].

Remote working is not a new concept but various factors including technological advancements, the change in legislation mentioned above and the needs and wants of organisations and their employees have prompted a growth in more flexible ways of working. A Scottish Enterprise document [4] on remote working claims that 80% of UK workers are now 'information workers' i.e. people who work with data and use a networked PC and telephone as their main tools. Information workers need no longer be tied to a traditional office nor traditional working hours [5].

Remote-working solutions once implemented by an organisation can support a broad range of operations, such as employees largely operating on-site but moving about, or even workers using a different set-up from the standard one; not just employees working from home. Such solutions have the potential to change significantly the way people work, and for the better; but there is a need for explicit guidance and planned support for those colleagues involved.

This article will explore the reasons why people choose to work from home and some of the difficulties that face them and their host organisations. It will then offer possible solutions to these challenges.

If the Cap Fits

So who exactly can work from home or remotely? Obviously not all jobs are suited to remote working: some tasks lend themselves better than others, requiring long periods of uninterrupted work and use of just a PC; while others necessitate staff being on-site and available during working hours. It may be possible to come to an arrangement whereby some workers may be able to spend part of their week working from home and part in the office. Although many organisations will have flexible working policies in place, currently it is largely up to the employee to make a convincing case. However some organisations in the public sector are actively promoting remote working and have introduced dedicated teleworking technologies. For example, the Natural History Museum, which is situated at multiple sites, felt that remote working was a priority for staff and took this into account when implementing a new IP communications network [6]. The percentage of staff working remotely within an organisation depends very much on organisational policy and to some degree the attitude of management towards such a setup.

Legally, remote working can be relatively straightforward to arrange. The process usually requires a formal application to change one's working status under the terms of an organisation's Flexible Working Policy. Contracts can then be changed and the employees' remote-working environment established. Such a policy usually offers the 'right to request' but does not mean that an employer is bound to consent to the request.

Benefits to Organisation and Employee

Remote working offers flexibility and cost benefit to both the worker and the organisation. Some of the key advantages are:

Work-Life Balance

People have busier and more complicated lives than ever before, and remote working offers a way for people to achieve a better work-life balance. Not having to travel from home means that parents and carers have fewer childcare worries and can spend more time together as a family.

The UK is one of the least regulated labour markets in the industrialised world having opted out of the European Union's working time directive, a legislative act which imposes a 48-hour maximum working week on all member states. Workers in the UK work some of the longest hours in Europe. Achieving a balance between work commitments and family life has never been more difficult. Initiatives like Changing Times [7], under the aegis of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the national trade union umbrella organisation in the UK, and Work Wise [8], established by the IT Forum Foundation, offer employers and unions practical guidance to achieving a better work-life balance in the workplace. The 2007 Work Wise Week was a series of events demonstrating flexible working practices and culminated in a 'work from home day'.

Productivity

"The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning, and does not stop until you get into the office."
Robert Frost

It is repeatedly reported that remote workers have a higher productivity [9]. This may be for a number of different reasons. On the whole remote workers tend to be less stressed. Many avoid the daily commute to work (often cited by workers as the most stressful part of the day) and, as mentioned earlier, many achieve a better work-life balance. Having happier staff is in an organisation's interests since it strengthens staff loyalty; the resultant drop in staff turnover reduces interruptions to projects and lateness of deliverables, not to mention the time and money lost to recruitment.

It is also true that there are actually fewer distractions at home than at work, aiding concentration. Those who work alone from home are likely to be in a quieter environment with no colleagues around to chat with, no company coffee breaks and no 'unnecessary' meetings. That is, unless they have young children; in which case, reliable, consistent childcare arrangements are indispensable.

It might also be the case that those who are sanctioned to work remotely by management are only the employees with an appropriate skill set such as punctuality and good time management and organisational skills.

Moreover, because remote workers are not actually physically in the workplace, and therefore 'seen to be at work', they often feel the need to prove that they are effective workers by their outputs. This may in time lead to an acute enthusiasm when replying to emails, answering the phone etc. that results in less breathers and shorter lunch breaks. How others perceive remote workers is discussed further in the section on challenges; but some might argue that remote workers are the hardest taskmasters.

In terms of staffing strategy in particular, remote working represents a major bonus to employers. Organisations can benefit as a whole by dint of who else can be employed thanks to the option of remote working. Using remote workers gives organisations access to skilled workers whom they might not so easily employ, people with mobility problems and staff who live out of commuting range and would be reluctant or unable to relocate. Equally, it might also allow the retention of skilled and experienced staff whose circumstances change and who may otherwise have had to resign. The saving in recruitment and training costs alone could be substantial, especially in niche industries.

Flexibility

Remote working allows more flexibility. Work can fit around individuals' timetables and irregular hours are more easily worked where one's workspace is not limited to the traditional 9-5 office. For example, a remote worker might find it easier to finish a piece of work that needs to be completed by a deadline. Organisations have also found that it cuts down on absenteeism [10].

Flexibility also applies to the ability to be in different places yet 'seem' as if you are in the office. The Natural History Museum remote system mentioned earlier allows staff 'to move locations quickly and without disruption, increasing their availability and enabling them to work from any of the museum's multiple sites, at home or while they are travelling.' [11] Hot-desking or using one desk shared between several people [12], is becoming an increasingly adopted solution in working space issues.

Environmental Concerns

It is increasingly clear that current commuting trends are unsustainable and any traffic reduction is sure to be beneficial to the environment through lower CO2 emissions. Government environmental targets have also encouraged public sector organisations to consider implementing remote access systems, thereby allowing staff to work more flexibly. As a result local authorities or other public sector bodies are more likely to meet their own targets. In June 2007 the Transport Studies Unit, part of the Oxford University Centre for the Environment, carried out a study on The Costs of Transport on the Environment – The Role of Teleworking in Reducing Carbon Emissions. The study concluded that "The importance of teleworking to reduce energy use in transport for both the work- and business-related journeys is becoming more important." [13]

Other possible environmental improvements, such as saving energy, reducing paper use and better waste disposal, are discussed in the recent Ariadne article Saving Energy in the Workplace [14] and can be applied to some extent to home working.

Reduction of Overhead Costs

Many employers are finding it more and more appealing to have remote workers as they significantly reduce overheads. An organisation can save on space, heating and electricity costs. Some organisations, for example, universities, have a growing number of people on-site: departments within want to expand but do not have the space; they can substantially benefit from people working off-site. Savings in this area can be channelled into improvements to other facilities. There are also now instances of people 'co-working', remote workers who get together and share office space.

Challenges to Organisation and Employee

Naturally any different way of working brings with it some challenges.

Loss of Face-to-face Contact

"Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success."
Henry Ford

Remote workers often suffer feelings of isolation. Some feel that they miss out on informal organisational discussion and have a poorer understanding of office politics. Some even feel that they are less valued than their on-site colleagues and more at risk from redundancy.

Remote workers do have to be able to motivate themselves to work independently and with less supervision. Some employees find this difficult and miss the direction and management they may have previously received from face-to-face contact.

Perceptions of Remote Workers

Despite outputs demonstrating to the contrary, there are still preconceptions that remote working is 'easier' and remote workers tend to 'skive off'. A recent survey in Computer Weekly reported that "when their remote employees do not immediately answer their home or mobile phones, managers show some lapse of faith. Nearly a quarter think their employees are running household errands or shuttling the kids around, and 9% believe they are being deliberately ignored." [15]

Perceptions of remote workers are changing and it is to be hoped a more objective attitude will prevail but currently this view does little to help boost remote worker's confidence.

In response some remote workers can find that they become slightly paranoid and end up overworking. In their own cocoon with no colleagues to pull them out or a virtual 'end of work bell' to tell them when to stop, some workers remain at their desk for hours on end without a break. What has not yet been researched or determined is how many managers worry about their subordinates working remotely till late in the evening. One might hazard a guess at "not many".

Morale

"Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work".
Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC)

In a staff development magazine released back in 1995 a remote worker explained:

"The typical remote worker starts out almost euphoric…You get to go home! But what researchers have found is that, over time, remote workers tend to bottom out. With the fridge always close at hand, weight gains are commonplace." [16]

Some organisations have reported a burnout stage [17] at around a year at which time a significant proportion decide that working remotely is not for them. A fair number will return to the office and some actually leave their job looking for an on-site post elsewhere. Workers who carry on working remotely after this period tend to find it difficult to go back to an ordinary office environment.

Organisational and Technical Issues

There are also many challenges for organisations which increasingly employ remote workers. One of the most significant is a loss of corporate identity.. Workers who are distributed may no longer feel part of a team or even part of an organisation. This loss of cohesion can have a significant effect on employees and managers alike. Managers may even have to learn to manage differently. Research carried out by Henley Management College found that the increase in flexible working practices has meant that to be effective, managers now need to trust their staff more and move away from the traditional controlling style of management [18].

There are also many specific technical requirements when supporting remote workers. Some are explored in the JISCInfoNet 'Anytime, anywhere computing' [19] publication which offers solutions to the difficulties in delivering such a service at Higher Education institutions. Setting up a remote worker is relatively straightforward. Broadband is now cheaper than ever and connections can be made through an Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) or cable. With countless providers online, and a number of broadband provider comparison sites available, there should be a package to suit all individual needs. However, which broadband provider workers should use may present an issue. Some organisations may have a preferred provider and may be paying, but home broadband is rarely going to be used solely for business purposes. Most organisations would use broadband with Web Virtual Private Network (VPN) to provide a secure connection between two or more locations via the Internet. Web VPN is a remote access security platform, which provides relatively simple and secure access to applications and information they require.

Despite the use of VPN the major technical issue for organisations using remote workers is security. Although remote workers may be no less vigilant than on-site colleagues, because their computer may be used for many more activities than just work, they are more exposed to unsafe applications and may end up being infected by viruses. Organisations need to make sure that their current security policy covers remote working. JANET, the UK's education and research network, provides useful information about remote working security [20] . The lack of an on-hand IT support team may also mean that machines are not maintained to the same standard as those in the office, unless the support team has included remote working workstations in its programme of support.

The technologies involved in enabling remote working, such as VPN, will be explored in a further article in Ariadne.

Education Sector

Remote Working has particular relevance to the education sector from two different angles. Firstly the technologies involved are interesting on a research level. But secondly, and more importantly for this article, flexible working and remote access is about removing barriers, something that universities endeavour to do. Allowing more people to access universities and university outputs, partly through e-learning and shared virtual learning environments (VLEs) for example, is a key part of JISC's work. Recently a number of JISC projects have been funded that look at issues relating to remote working. The Location Independent Working (LIW) [21] project lead by Coventry University is looking at the cultural change, technological development and good working practice required to support academic staff carrying out their work from locations other than their base campus. Using remote working effectively is a particular challenge to the education and public sector.

Meeting the Challenges

Inclusion and Support

Although there is no universal panacea for the challenges discussed above, those who have experience of remote working often feel that the key to success lies in making sure that remote workers feel included and supported.

This can be done in many ways. For example, in the establishment of a remote workers' support group with regular communications via synchronous media such as instant messaging or phone/video conferencing. Synchronous technologies (as opposed to asynchronous ones such as email) allow for more feedback and aid understanding. Web 2.0 social networking tools have been particularly successful in enabling virtual teams to communicate and collaborate. Using the technologies out there to enable communication is an important skill and so a good relationship between IT support and remote workers is crucial. These technologies will be explored in a further article.

Organisations would also benefit from ensuring remote workers are included in organisational procedures such as awards and rewards, thus demonstrating to them and others that they remain valued. Remote workers should also be invited to on-site events whenever possible. In her article on Trust in Global Virtual Teams [22] Niki Panteli advocates that any virtual team include a social and fun element in its interactions, which will help in creating a stronger shared social context.

In November 2007, in an effort to support colleagues who work away from its University of Bath base, UKOLN held a one-day workshop for all remote workers [23] . The workshop was facilitated by Sylvia Vacher of Objectives Training and Development. Workshop members spent the majority of the day discussing and developing strategies for improving personal and collaborative working practices in their particular distributed environment.

It should be pointed out that within some organisations people can feel like remote workers without even working remotely. Good communication is always essential for a contented team. Organisations may find that they benefit across the board from procedures and policies produced to address the needs of remote workers.

Shared Goals

As well as involving remote workers, it is also imperative that organisations keep them well informed and provide clear, well-documented work goals. Whatever the make-up of the team, these goals should be collective ones. Niki Panteli asserts that "Shared goals are and should be a key characteristic of virtual teams." She explains that the "construction of these goals is likely to be time-consuming and complex but that the collaborative creation of goals is crucial to a successful virtual team. Working towards these goals will ultimately result in a level of trust." [22]. As Charles Handy puts it, "virtuality requires trust to make it work: Technology on its own is not enough." [24]

Policies and Procedures

In order to formalise such practices, organisations which increasingly allow staff to work flexibly should make sure that they have good working policies and procedures in place. A policy might cover how remote working can be applied for, health and safety, data protection, security issues, financial issues such as when expenses can be claimed, legal and contractual issues, work hours etc. Such a policy should also provide useful guidance. As an article in Business Zone explains, "The key to unlocking the benefits of flexible working is to ensure that when a boardroom policy is being created it always keeps practical implementation front of mind." [25]

In addition to a policy on remote working it might be useful for the relevant staff to be provided with other more specific documentation. This could include a checklist of technical requirements, information on broadband providers etc. It could well be beneficial for a new remote worker to be put into contact with other remote workers in the organisation. Chatting to people who know what you are attempting is likely to be very useful.

However, within any organisation, the matrix of different organisational experience and previous knowledge of the available technologies will mean that the reactions and experiences of each person to remote working could be very different. For example, someone who has worked for an organisation for a long while and then chooses to work remotely will have different needs from someone who is new to the organisation yet has worked remotely before.

Groups like the Telework Association [26] can provide support to organisations and individuals new to remote working. The Telework Association is a membership organisation providing information, advice and support to enable individuals, whether employed or self-employed, to make a success of mobile, home-based and flexible ways of working. As part of their work they produce the Teleworking Handbook.

Time Management

"There is never enough time to do everything, but there is always enough time to do the most important thing."
Brian Tracy

As mentioned earlier, working remotely requires good time management skills. Time for everyone is limited but the two pivotal skills are prioritising work and working more efficiently. There are many ways in which we can work more efficiently. Maintaining good communication with other workers, exploiting synergies and basing work on best practice avoids duplication of work and 'reinventing the wheel'. Remote workers also have a wealth of technology at their fingertips that they can use to save time rather than add to their workload. A good skill to learn is effective use of email. Some ideas on how to avoid email overload and use other communication tools were written way back in 2005 by Brian Kelly [27]. Brian suggested the use of Instant Messaging, RSS, blogs, wikis, VOIP as other options in communications technologies. The best approach is to use the appropriate tool at the appropriate time. Why type out a long email message when a 1-minute phone conversation will clear things up and save time?

A Successful Remote Worker

Although what makes a successful remote worker is likely to be different for each individual, there is a consensus that working away from the office requires discipline. This discipline can often be easier to achieve when a division is maintained between work and home. Some remote workers like to demarcate the day by a daily activity such as walking round the garden or putting on formal work clothes and sitting at a desk. A clearly defined workspace, such as dedicated room or garden office, also helps. Working on your own initiative without the opportunity to bounce ideas off others can make tasks seem boring and stale, so maintaining a consistent work schedule with regular breaks helps keep the mind fresh. People work well in different ways and at different times, so it may be important for remote workers to focus on what they are producing rather that the length of time they are sat in front of a computer. That said, remote working does require employees to offer their full attention to work. Having children at home, rather than at nursery or with a child minder, will not work.

Alongside an effective working environment the success of remote working also relies on transparency of roles. As mentioned above, clear policies are imperative and so is clarity over responsibilities and the financial aspects of the working arrangement. Host organisations have a duty to specify who will pay for what and remote workers have a duty to keep all receipts for broadband, stationery, telephone calls etc.

Conclusion: The Office of the Future

This article has covered some of the challenges that face employers and employees who embrace remote working. It makes no apology for not having dealt with the technical aspects in any great detail, believing changes in working practice always centre first and foremost on cultural change. The technical aspects will be covered in a further article.

At the beginning of the article it was stated that in the 21st Century work has changed. This change brings with it responsibilities. Remote working offers great potential for employer and employee alike but to make it work both parties need to 'do their bit'. Within the public sector, which strives to be seen to be more mobile and flexible with initiatives like the government's Project Nomad [28], there is a duty to embrace flexible and remote working. Interestingly, the research for this article has shown that it is the large commercial companies which have the infrastructure to support remote working, and recognise the benefits it can offer. It is they which are leading the field in implementation of remote working. Currently many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) do not have the scale of staffing or IT infrastructure to support newer working practices. However it is obvious that remote working will remain on the increase for sometime.

What has been observed when investigating remote working further is that quite often problems that have already been observed in the office, such as feelings of isolation and low morale, can be amplified when employees work remotely. Organisations which truly address these issues by engaging with their staff, whether they work remotely or not, will find that the benefits are significant. Maybe it matters little where the office of the future will be, more whether the office of the future connects.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the UKOLN remote workers for their words of wisdom.

Editor's Note:
Marieke Guy has been with UKOLN since May 2000 and has worked remotely since April 2008. She currently lives 15 miles from UKOLN's offices and made the decision to work from home for family and environmental reasons. Since taking this decision, she says, she has learnt a lot about herself, communication technologies and how cold her spare bedroom is!

[2008-10-20] Marieke has since begun her own blog on remote working entitled "Ramblings of a Remote Worker" in which she hopes to cover cultural issues, organisational attitudes and useful technologies related to remote working. See http://remoteworker.wordpress.com/

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  27. Web Focus: Must Email Die? Brian Kelly, Ariadne, Issue 45 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue45/web-focus/
  28. ProjectNomad http://www.projectnomad.org.uk/

Author Details

Marieke Guy
Research Officer
UKOLN
University of Bath

Email: m.guy@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/ukoln/staff/m.guy/

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Date published: 
30 July 2008

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How to cite this article

Marieke Guy. "A Desk Too Far?: The Case for Remote Working". July 2008, Ariadne Issue 56 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue56/guy/


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