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What to do to make sure working from home works

/ Nov 14, 2012 12:15PM / Print / ()

What to do to make sure working from home works

Advances in technology mean working from home has never been easier and research has shown it can make employees more productive and happier in their jobs.

The benefits of "teleworking" are touted as including increased productivity, saving on office space and overheads, increased employee retention and reduced carbon footprint.

Research by Cisco found 45% of those surveyed globally work an extra 2-3 hours per day because they can work remotely, while 26% of young Australian professionals surveyed believe that being able to work remotely is a right rather than privilege in today's world.

What's more, if just 10% of Australians worked from the home, 50% of the time, each year this would save 41 million hours in commute, 1.3 billion car kilometres, 120 million litres of fuel and 320,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

So why aren't more businesses embracing working from home?

Currently only 6% of workers in Australia have a teleworking arrangement, according to a HILDA survey by the University of Melbourne, and that's despite the concept existing since the 1970s.

That puts us behind comparable economies such as the United States, Canada and Britain in developing a working from home culture.

The government wants business to back so-called telecommuting as part of its National Digital Economy Strategy and is running a campaign to double the number of people working from home to 12% by 2020.

Indeed, under the Fair Work Act businesses are encouraged to accept flexible working arrangement requests – such as working part-time, job sharing or working from home – unless there are reasonable business grounds to reject them.

Given it is National Telework Week this week, we've taken a look at what you need to do to make sure working from home works for your employees and your business.

Technology
The government believes the launch of the National Broadband Network will facilitate a rise in teleworking to some extent but Dr Yvette Blount of Macquarie University told SmartCompany the technology to allow successful teleworking already exists.

"Even without the NBN, nobody is talking about technology as being a barrier, there are other issues involved," she says.

Blount says all the affordable and effective technology needed to work from home already exists.

Trust
As an employer you have to be able to trust that your employees are actually working and not lounging around watching TV or collecting a salary from you and working for someone else.

"Whichever way you look at it large numbers of businesses still have a mindset of still being able to see people," says KPMG digital economy partner Malcolm Alder.

"Even though we know if you are a disengaged employee there are a lot of ways you can fritter away your time while at the office."

Technology means that while you may not be able to look over someone's shoulder, employers can easily figure out if productivity or work quality is dropping off with staff working from home through regular emails, phone calls and deadlines.

"Some managers feel that they cannot trust their employees to work, but at the end of the day you would think if you did not trust that employee you would not trust them in the first place," Blount says.

As long as both manager and employee are clear on what the arrangement is, violations of trust can be avoided.

This might mean you require employees to have worked at your business for a while before receiving the option of working from home in order to get "runs on the board".

However, on the other side of the equation, psychologist Eve Ash says giving an employee the opportunity to work from home can engender trust in you by helping with their work/life balance and really assisting those with families who have to negotiate childcare pick up and drop offs.

Targets
Successful working from home requires clear communication and expectations and the first decision is whether you will measure productivity in hours or outcomes.

If it is in hours you need to set a minimum amount of time that you expect the employee to commit to their job and if you look at outputs the employee can work to goals of how much work is produced.

While a job like insurance claim processing is well suited to working from home as employers can monitor how many claims are being processed, an employee whose role involves a position on a factory production line is unlikely to be able to work from home.

If it is possible to do a job from home, employees believe they can be just as productive.

Research published this year by Cisco found 69% of employees indicated they believe it is unnecessary to be in the office in order to be productive.

Communication
The biggest advantage of having an entire team working in a single office is the ease of communication.

If an urgent meeting is required, or you simply want to get two or three people from separate departments together to discuss something then it is easily done.

"You have to think about how you communicate with your employees who are working from home; communication is key," Blount says.

"If you have employees working away from the central office you have to be able to access them and communicate with them and understand how and when they need to be in the office and communicate with others," she says.

One suggestion is to have a fixed time per week where everyone is available to meet if required or meet up on Skype.

However, Alder says less communication between employees may have its benefits.

"If [working from home] ends up, hopefully, cutting down the number of internal meetings you have, that could be a good thing in the long run," he says.

Security
One reason that many organisations resist the push to allow people to work from home is a fear of reduced security around file storage.

Within the confines of a building the IT department can ensure secure connections and firewalls to prevent viruses and hacking of important and sensitive information.

When someone connects to the network externally it opens up vulnerability from their home network and adds another level of complexity for IT staff.

Beyond these security measures, managers and employees need to agree on the preferred use and sharing of files, as things can get very confusing and difficult if everyone is operating in a different way.

Equity
Many employees are reluctant to provide the opportunity to work from home for some employees if they cannot provide it to all, according to Alder.

"If it is possible for some to telework and others not to, from an equity point of view that is an issue," he says.

"Do you default to 'if we can't do it for everybody, we are not going to do it for any?' I'm not saying there is a right or wrong answer but it is a valid consideration."

Occupational health and safety
Last year Telstra was ordered to pay compensation by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal after employee Dale Hargreaves fell down a flight of stairs and hurt his shoulder while working at home.

The case highlighted the need for businesses to conduct risk assessments of employees' homes if they are working out of the office in order to avoid potential occupational health and safety lawsuits.

Following the case, Harmers Workplace Lawyers senior associate Kristin Ramsey recommended businesses consider conducting practical risk assessments.

"That doesn't necessarily mean we're able to monitor daily what people are doing from home, or have control over that. But if they take no steps, that's when they aren't going to be able to demonstrate they acted to make a safe environment."

This may not involve actually going to look at a home physically but instead employees could conduct a checklist as to whether their work environment at home has adequate lighting, heating and ventilation, whether any computer or desk is set up ergonomically and whether the actual work place is near any electrical or trip hazards.

Review
If you do decide to implement working from home it's important to also implement a review of its effectiveness, if things aren't working you need to have a way of dealing with it.

Blount says while the employee working from home may feel they are more productive you must also look at the impact on the productivity of the rest of the team.

"If it is affecting other customers if I am not here then that has an impact on the rest of team," she says.

"It is important to have a formal review and make adjustments as you go, it is not a cookie cutter approach and it is not the same for every organisation."

Alder suggests trialling working from home arrangements initially and regularly reviewing their effectiveness.

"It's not an all or nothing proposition, this is something that can be trialled or introduced quite slowly and progressively," she says.

"Feel your way through it with your staff and make sure you take them on a dual learning journey."

This story first appeared on Smart Company

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