How psychology can make homeworking succeed

Employers that allow flexible working often have a better, stronger and more open relationship with their staff.
Employers that allow flexible working often have a better, stronger and more open relationship with their staff.

The pros and cons of remote working have been widely discussed in the media over the last few years. While small and medium-sized businesses have been praised for embracing unconventional working patterns, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer became renowned for banning staff from working from home.

Whatever your view, by 30 June 2014, new laws on flexible working will be extended to give all employees the right to request it after 26 weeks’ service, whereas before only working parents and carers were eligible to request a less conventional working day.

In recent years, businesses have taken huge steps to improve remote and flexible working policies. But research from Virgin Media Business found that employees believe remote working is still misunderstood because of lack of training available, as well as a lack of trust between employers and employees. And more than four in 10 (42%) believe co-workers do not trust those that work remotely.

While it is human nature to be sceptical of new ways of working, businesses that embrace flexible working practices and trust their staff to do so often have a better, stronger and more open relationship with their staff. Remote working also has great psychological benefits for employees. The majority of workers believe remote working helps them address their work-life balance and makes them much more productive. But most importantly, according to Virgin Media Business, 84% of workers believe that allowing staff to work remotely shows that their company really trusts and values them.

Staff today expect their employers to not only allow flexible working practices, but also to provide them with the tools and training they need to do it well. If done correctly, remote working can entirely transform an organisation, making the work environment less complex, more productive and collaborative – something every organisation vies for in an increasingly competitive world.

So to help both businesses and workers alike, here – in conjunction with Virgin Media Business – are my top tips on how to get the most out of remote working:

  1. Manage your boundaries – knowing when to switch off or to stop checking your work email is just as important as maintaining the space from non-work commitments in order to be productive during the work day.
  2. It is not just about the flexible working policy – do you have the technology to work effectively from a remote location? Are your office-based commitments so heavy that you can’t spare the time to work anywhere else? It is important to think about any barriers and broach those as best you can. That might mean anything from an open conversation with your manager, or asking IT to fix a laptop.
  3. Habitualise – making good use of technology and remote working is not just about acquiring new skills. It is the habits we form which create sustainable productivity. Just like the office environment, good planning and the best use of resources happens with structure and processes in place.
  4. If in doubt, over-communicate – either being out of contact creates the wrong impression for managers still learning to trust remote working, or there is not enough communication to work effectively. Setting an informal “out of office” email can help demonstrate clearly that as you are out, email and phone replies may be a little slower in arriving. Also, remember to check in with your email every hour or so, if possible.
  5. Smash the mythology – does remote working have a positive image, in line with the business’ ethos? Common problems can occur, like discussing an out-of-office working day as if it is a weekly holiday or chance to go slow. It is this kind of workplace mythology that needs to be changed. Share positive stories about what you accomplished outside of the office and how. It will only make future remote working easier and more widespread if the organisation knows that it is working and is an accepted part of the culture.
  6. Test drive in the office – if you are a beginner with any remote technology, consider trialling it in the office environment first. Schedule a video call with a client or colleague, or spend an afternoon working on remote desktop. Ironing out any issues by utilising office support will help make you more productive when you’re doing it “for real.”
  7. Experiment – one person’s natural remote working style might not work for someone with a different role, skill set or priorities. You might find the morning is a particularly productive time to grab a coffee and think creatively, or train travel might be a great way to catch up on admin. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different schedules, technologies and approaches.
  8. Utilise role models – if you are looking to make remote working work for you, why not speak to those who are already doing it successfully? Not only can you pick up new tips, but this kind of learning and teamwork helps to foster an environment that is trusting of remote working.
  9. Know thyself – people get the most out of remote working when there is a clear purpose behind it. Know why you are working remotely – otherwise the lure of responding to ad hoc emails can make the day disappear.
  10. Avoid the sofa – if you’re working at home, avoid the temptation of using the lounge. Find a quiet space without the potential distractions of TV, or food and drink. If remote working is to be a regular part of your role, consider creating a study space where you can focus.

The working environment has changed enormously in recent years, and as technology continues to advance, more changes lie ahead. But by regularly communicating and evaluating the best working practices for both staff and the business, employers can keep ahead of competition, meet growing customer needs, and – most importantly – ensure their staff remain happy and loyal.

Professor Cary Cooper

About Professor Cary Cooper

Professor Cary Cooper is a psychologist and professor of organisational psychology and health, Lancaster University Management School.