Comment: Home truths for remote working

Kristy Dorsey. Picture: Robert Perry
Kristy Dorsey. Picture: Robert Perry
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THE timing is a bit of a coincidence, but with the weather spawning so much travel turmoil of late, tomorrow’s onset of Work from Home Week is certainly apt.

It has been estimated that over the course of an average career, UK commuters spend more than 10,600 hours travelling to and from work – a total of 443 days, just shy of a year and three months. Reports have put the cost of lost productivity through delays and transport problems at more than £1 billion.

Faced with the alternative of traffic jams, tedious bus journeys and teeming train carriages, working from home seems a no-brainer, but it’s not as straightforward as it might first appear. There are, of course, those jobs that simply can’t be done via remote control: sales, healthcare and manufacturing immediately spring to mind.

Not every individual has what it takes to work from home, either. Some people immediately recognise this (“Oh no, I need to separate my personal and private life!”), but others only slowly come to understand the pitfalls.

Teleworking can be downright lonely. Humans are, for the most part, innately social. We don’t merely crave the company of others – after a certain point, we need it.

Sure, you can ring someone up for a quick chat, or fire off an e-mail, but neither has the immediacy nor impact of bouncing a thought off a colleague sitting at the next desk.

That loss of collaboration is one of the reasons why Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer famously banned remote working at her company a couple of years ago. The move provoked a storm of online criticism led by that prominent teleworker, Sir Richard Branson, but there’s no clear-cut evidence that it has hampered the internet giant’s performance.

Remote working was pioneered in the UK as far back as the early 1960s, when Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley founded the software company FI Group. By the mid-1980s she employed some 800 home workers, many of whom were skilled women who needed the flexibility of teleworking.

The allure of flexibility is even stronger today, and not just for women, but for men as well. There are also the efficiencies of working from home: employees save on time, companies save on central overhead costs, and the environment is saved from additional CO2 emissions.

With just 14 per cent of the UK’s employees working from home at least part of the time, there is clearly further scope to harvest the benefits of video conferencing, messaging services and other collaborative technology.

It’s not an all-or-nothing choice between completely unfettered workers and the autocratic dominance of the central office. Individuals and businesses can benefit from a bit of both – the trick lies in balancing IT against the human touch.

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