· 5 min read · Features

Managing out-of-office staff

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So many people want to work remotely, yet so few employers allow them to. We ask why this remains the case, and weigh up the pros and cons of the practice for staff and company alike.

 

Internet company Yahoo should be the epitome of hi-tech, but when it hit the headlines this February, it looked oddly old-fashioned. CEO Marissa Mayer controversially ordered its flexible workforce back into the office, telling her staff they needed to be working side-by-side to be productive. 

“Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings,” she said in the now-infamous memo. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”  

But as advances in technology continue to make remote working a more agreeable and feasible reality, is Yahoo fighting a losing battle to force staff to work in offices? 

Mayer is certainly plugging a lost cause if recent research is anything to go by. Seven in 10 employees say they are more productive when given the opportunity to work flexibly, and 82% feel the Government should do more to implement flexible working, according to a recent study by technology firm Plantronics. 

The State of the Flexible Working Nation report, published in March and conducted by OnePoll, surveyed 2,000 employees to gain an understanding of the UK’s changing working culture. Saving money and time on commuting (cited by 52% of respondents) and spending more time with family (48%) were the primary reasons for wanting to work away from the office. Yet only 36% felt they had the necessary tools and knowledge to work flexibly, and 63% said they had not received any specialist training in this area. 

Norma Pearce, EMEA HR director at Plantronics, says employers often don’t know how to set up and establish a flexible working policy or how to find and implement the right technology. “We’ve got to try to help people to understand that it’s not that difficult to do in the first 

place and get over that first stumbling block,” she says. “We’re so institutionalised into believing we have to work in an office, nine to five. It’s essentially about changing that mindset.” 

Pearce certainly knows what she is talking about. A whopping 85% of Plantronics’ UK staff have worked remotely since the company, which manufactures electronic headsets, launched its ‘Simply Smarter Office’ flexible working scheme in 2008. 

Pearce says it was a “massive” shift for managers to understand how they could stay connected and visible to staff working remotely. “Managers needed to understand it was about influencing rather than controlling. We had to do a lot of training on the softer skills, such as reading body language and facial expressions,” she explains. Implementing a remote work scheme was a gradual process that took up to 18 months, and the company had to make sure the managers were fully on board. “It wasn’t suddenly a case of letting everyone work from home all at once, more a ‘work one day a week at first and see how it goes’ approach,” Pearce adds.

Flexible working is, in many ways, a no-brainer for employers, according to Peter Thomson, visiting executive fellow at Henley Business School. “People working flexibly are more productive, have lower absenteeism and are less likely to leave. This results in improvements to the bottom line and a more contented workforce,” he says. 

Keeping staff fully engaged and involved is, of course, crucial, and trust, communication and autonomy will all play a part.  “Employers need to ensure they have a trusting culture that allows people to have control of the time and place their work gets done,” Thomson adds. “This means managing by results: giving people clear goals and then letting them get on with it and avoiding micro-management.”

But how do you demonstrate and establish trust as part of your organisational culture? 

“Giving people autonomy over how their job gets done and treating them like adults is the best way of demonstrating a trusting culture,” Thomson advises. “Good communication is important for mobile workers, but just telling them how great the organisation is doesn’t work; they need to experience it.”

Donna Miller, European HR director at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, says employees have got to feel as though they are part of the organisation and well supported, regardless of whether they are in or out of the office. “Ensuring there are reasons and opportunities (and space) for them to come to the office and spend time working with the people who support them is really important. Keep them engaged in the business through formal meetings and informal social events,” she says.

It’s also important to consider the morale of office-based employees. “Make sure they understand why the role (not the employee) is remote,” Miller advises. “It’s really about helping them understand that out of the office does not mean ‘free time’. This can sometimes be difficult to grasp for employees who have never worked remotely. Taking time to ensure team successes are highlighted can really help address this.”

At housing group Orbit, about 30% of its 1,200 staff work remotely, and almost all staff have the option to work flexibly. Executive director Tony Williams says getting your employees’ input and feedback on company matters, wherever they happen to work, is fundamental. “Our chief executive, Paul Tennant, recently went on the road to see people and gain their views before setting the agenda for our ‘Orbit 2020’ project (on how we should deliver our services in the future),” he explains. 

The company also seeks feedback from staff on a variety of issues through surveys. “We encourage participation by making a charity donation for each completed survey and use an external provider to give peace of mind to our staff that their comments are anonymous, and we feel that allows us to truly gauge [their feelings],” Williams says. “Action plans are created from the survey results and our progress is monitored regularly. We communicate our progress with staff so they can see how their feedback has shaped action and decision making.”

Having an adaptable working strategy in place that fits in with your employees is also important. 

Enterprise Rent-A-Car operates ‘alternative work arrangements’ that are usually in place for a maximum period of six months, at which point the plan is reviewed and changed, renewed or discontinued. “Our plans are very flexible and include all kinds of options to suit different people’s needs,” Miller explains. “Each flexible plan starts with the employee presenting their plan to their line manager. From there, the employee and the line manager come up with a solution that works best for the department and the business.” 

Mobile working is not for everyone, however, and there are some common pitfalls employers need to be aware of. Not having an office can be seen as a real negative by senior-level employees, says Plantronics’ Pearce. “If we’re recruiting a senior manager, they have to understand there might not be an office or even a desk available to them. That’s enough to put some people off completely,” she says.

Henley Business School’s Thomson says some employees can also end up feeling isolated. “Social media is a good substitute for the coffee-machine chat, but many bosses ban it as a waste of time. Individuals can become isolated so it is important to continue to have some face-to-face contact where possible,” he advises.

Nicky Little, head of leadership at consultancy Cirrus, says employers can sometimes overlook rewards and incentives for mobile workers. “It’s all too easy to forget about recognition and reward when people are out of sight. Good leaders make sure they keep in touch with everybody on the team, take time to listen and make sure contributions are recognised,” she explains.

Little adds that there are some industries for which mobile working is not suited. “You can’t drive a bus or change a bandage remotely. However, more and more jobs today do offer the opportunity to do at least some work remotely. And often organisations that offer some flexibility to employees to choose when and where they work are repaid with higher degrees of engagement and productivity,” she says.

Jake Iles, director at professional services consultancy Six Forward, says employers have also got to be clear about their expectations from the outset. “Any mismatch between employer and employee expectations will result in friction. Clear and effective communication, coupled with well-defined objectives that are measurable, will help mitigate potential problems,” he notes. “The overuse of email can spiral into conflict when a well-timed phone call or personal visit may just diffuse the problem.”

Ultimately, the line between work and home life is becoming increasingly blurred and employers need to recognise and tap into this. “After all, many people don’t mind working in the evening if it means they can take an hour or two off during the day for a non-work-related activity,” Little says. “Just how formal your strategy must be depends on your culture and business type. But in general, staff who are trusted with responsibility and flexibility tend to be more engaged and productive people.”