Monday, June 11, 2012

The downside to working from home

People working from home may be at risk of producing lower quality services than those in a more formal environment, new research shows.
This is troubling news given the federal government has made a pledge to double the percentage of the labour force that works from home from 6 per cent to 12 per cent by 2020.

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Dr Yvette Blount, lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Economics, Macquarie University, is conducting research into the rising trend of telework in today’s workplaces.

She has found that although we now have the appropriate technology to support people who choose to work from home, there is the potential for problems to arise with the quality of work performed by stay-at-home workers, especially when it comes to dealing with multi-faceted workplace challenges.

“Although working at home can increase productivity because the lack of interruptions means people can finish what they are doing, the unavailability of employees to make decisions is a problem. This is especially the case when you are dealing with complex customer issues that can’t be resolved with a phone call,” she says.

For instance, at one of the businesses Blount spoke to for her research an employee said although people were happy about the flexible working conditions, it caused frustrations when managers were not in the workplace and able to make decisions.

“If you’re in an industry like insurance claims where it’s process driven working from home can work well. But when you’re in an industry where face-to-face contact is important working from home can impact customers,” she says.

Blount says her evidence also shows the reduction of chance encounters with colleagues in the work environment and informal meetings that working from home produces can also be to the detriment of businesses.

“Going for a cup of coffee with a workmate gives you the opportunity to resolve issues, discuss problems and come up with innovations,” she says, explaining that the quality of work performed can suffer when employees don’t have the opportunity to do this.

There are, however, ways to address these limitations. Lisa Harvey is the founder of Energetica, which specialises in developing web sites for not-for-profit outfits. Her business model is completely based around her staff working from home.

Harvey says when she first wanted to expand the business she looked for people who were happy to work from home. She now has a 10-strong staff force that works from Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney and Townsville.

She has purposely hired people who are comfortable in their own company, who are self-starters and have enough experience that they don't need a huge amount of direction. This of course has implications for her running costs given she needs to hire relatively expensive staff, rather than cheaper graduates.

“As we get bigger we need to hire junior people and we haven’t resolved how we are going to deal with this. There are pools of people like stay-at-home mums who we can use to fill some positions – but both home and work roles need to be compatible for the situation to work,” says Harvey.

Energetica’s business model allows people to have flexible hours – for example working before the school drop off and afterwards, and then in the evenings – so they can spend time with their kids.

But Harvey has put in place numerous technology-driven systems to allow the business to operate efficiently despite its disparate workforce.

There is a firm-wide meeting every day at which staff explain what they are doing that day, so everyone in the business is in touch with everyone else. Staff members are constantly Skyping each other and the document sharing software Go to Meeting allows them to collaborate on work. Energetica also uses Yammer – which is the corporate version of Twitter – as a key communication channel.  “We’re totally reliant on technology,” says Harvey.

Energetica also employs project managers and is at the moment investing in a better time management system to keep a closer eye on the time people spend on projects.

“I need staff to have good computer equipment so I provide them with an allowance, on the proviso they have a great fire wall and good broadband connection. We also use cloud-based software.”

Harvey’s advice to other businesses that want to give staff more freedom to work from home is to think carefully around how communication will be managed once staff are not in the office every day. But she says overall, enabling staff to work from home is hugely positive.

“We had one staff member recently move from South Australia to Queensland, which is no small move. She took a week off but because of her working arrangements she didn’t have to change jobs, which we think really vindicates the benefits of the working from home approach.”

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By  - Alexandra Cain
June 8, 2012


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