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Home working can help increase business productivity

Modern IT solutions are enabling employees to work from home more effectively, but not all employers are comfortable with the working practice.

As a natural consequence of the broadband revolution, the home has become an extension of the office for many UK professionals. The development of cloud computing has further increased the appeal of home working to employees, who are now able to access their files and software applications from remote computers. For many workers, the daily commute into the office serves little purpose as they can simply log on to their home PC or Mac, and start working the moment they finish their breakfast.

In a recent study by Skype, the online communication provider, 62 per cent of organisation surveyed said they now have home workers on their payroll. One such worker, Jolie O'Dell, explained that the development of online collaboration technologies has encouraged more people to work from home. Writing for Mashable, she said the lifestyle benefits of home working are particularly appealing to employees, as many attempt to use it to improve their work/life balance. "The proliferation of online collaboration tools is one indicator that working from home culture is blossoming," Ms O-Dell stated. "In fact, Skype and tools like it have pretty much made the necessity of a nine-to-five physical presence behind a cubicle-bound desk obsolete."

But not all employers have reacted entirely positively to this emerging home working trend. Some remain suspicious of the practise, believing employees simply cannot work as effectively in their own environment, where they have virtually a free rein to run amok. They may even fear that home working represents a dilution of their own authority, given that they are unable to monitor staff members throughout the day and ensure they remain on task. In fact, manager attitudes serve as the principle constraint on the wider adoption of home working practices.

Shirley Borrett, development director at the Telework Association, recently commented on this issue, noting that 'presenteeism' is also a problem for organisations - where employees turn up to work each day but contribute little in terms of productivity. "You can turn your computer on and look busy, but it doesn't mean that you're actually producing anything," Ms Borrett stated. She urged employers to set performance targets for all workers, which can be attained in whichever environment best suits the individual. In her view, setting targets and monitoring these enables managers to keep employees on tasks, whether they work at home or in the office. "The fact that they can't see them is not a key thing in supervising then," she stated.

As the popularity of home working increases and more employees take up this option, businesses that insist on office attendance may put themselves at a disadvantage. Adrienne Burgess, head of research at the Fatherhood Institute, recently suggested that firms need to offer flexible working options if they are to keep hold of their top talent. She commented that employees have other things they want to do with their time aside from work, and the companies they work for must attempt to appease them. Ms Burgess said it is "very much the case" with employees who have children that flexible working is a must to keep high-fliers on the payroll. If they are unable to balance their work and family commitments, they will soon look for alternative jobs, she stated. "[Employers] are now beginning to recognise that men have substantial caring responsibilities because mothers are employed and can't be out of work too long," she said.

There are further potential benefits to home working which reluctant employers should consider. As the Telework Association's Ms Borrett explained, remote working technologies can help minimise the amount of time lost to staff illness. "If you wake up in the morning and you feel a bit rough – you think you've got the flu coming on - and you can't face the journey to work. So you don't go to work; you call in sick. That's a lost day," she stated. "If you take some medication and your headache goes away and by lunchtime you're actually feeling quite a bit better, you still won't go into work if you've you got to commute." However, Ms Borrett explained that home workers have the option of simply logging on and working when they feel up to it, and even working during evenings and weekends if necessary.

Home working can also help businesses limit their losses during periods of severe weather, such as November and December 2010. When snow and ice grips Britain, many employees find themselves unable to travel to work, and the impact of this is reduced productivity. However, if employees can simply work on their own computers - hence avoiding the commute - the weather has no negative impacts of business output.

Clearly if employers are prepared to focus on the benefits of home working, rather than dwelling on their initial concerns, they may find that the practice adds real value to their organisations. From an IT department's perspective, home working costs little, and the practise has the potential to deliver significant savings. Employers are under no pressure to equip workers with the computers and software they need to work from home, and they do not need to meet the costs of running IT systems. Businesses can reduce their overheads, appease their staff and potentially encourage increased productivity all in one go - simply by being a little more flexible with their workforce.