Don’t forget to train your homeworkers

Broadband analysts Point Topic calculate that almost two million employees now work from home. Advice on how to manage homeworkers is easy to find, from the Health and Safety Executive to Business Link, but less is said about their training and developments needs. Are they much the same as for office-based staff, or is this a whole new ball game?

Nationwide Building Society has 165 homeworkers. Here, as elsewhere, the top homeworking issues are which jobs can be done from home and which people can cope with the demands.

The right stuff

Customer-facing roles at branches will be unsuitable, but as John Wrighthouse, head of group training & development, says, for a broad range of people it works well. “We have people in our audit department and in property services, there are project managers, consultants, and systems developers who work from home, and they range from the lowest levels through to senior managers.”

In deciding whether people have the right personal attributes, managers must understand what is involved. Homeworking can be isolating so people need to be self-sufficient. An ability to find new ways of managing time and workload are also important, according to Claire Howarth, employee relations and equalities manager for Hertfordshire County Council.

“Homeworkers must manage time in a new context, working without the time markers they were used to in the past. And they need the ability to manage the logistics around getting work done without direct supervision.”

Employers such as Nationwide and Hertfordshire County Council have learned that once potential homeworkers have been identified, the next step is to assess their training needs.

Salford City Council has moved 70 of its customer service staff to homeworking roles. Martin Vickers, head of customer services, says: “We interviewed each member of staff to understand their expectations and suitability. We then talked about our organisational objectives, and out of that came personal development plans, tailor-made for each employee.”

Key areas

Vickers says this is how employee’s development needs are assessed. Plans have to meet people’s personal needs and they must continually be updated through regular appraisals.

This is an approach advocated by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Rebecca Clake, CIPD resources adviser, says: “If homeworkers are to maintain and develop their skills, managers need to build effective relationships, keep communicating and support them. This means scheduling regular reviews to make sure they understand their roles, have clear objectives and can identify their support needs.”

High on the list of training will be IT, as homeworkers will rely on technology to work and communicate, and tech support will now be harder to call on.

Hertfordshire County Council’s Howarth finds that 99% of new homeworkers need training in specific ICT systems. For instance, they have different arrangements for homeworkers to access and download databases, so early training on that is essential.

Job skills training will often involve IT elements. Computer security awareness is a must, and there will always be the need for software upgrade training as new versions are introduced and people’s jobs evolve.

Staying healthy at home

Another subject that good employers offer is health and safety training: understanding good workstation setup, healthy working posture and safe practices. At Nationwide, it is called a body care routine in which people are instructed in the display screen equipment regulations and asked to maintain contact with their manager so the company knows they are safe while at home.

To manage its initial homeworker training, Nationwide brought in Watermans. The building society believed an external provider would be better placed to help staff develop the appropriate behaviours and mindset.

Watermans operations director Sarah Jones says while many employers recognise the need for hard skills training, they tend to forget the softer aspects of homeworking. This means being self-disciplined, planning the day, managing time, controlling interruptions from friends and neighbours, and communicating with managers.

Training methods

Another issue is training methods. Most employers now offer e-learning, using new media. Skill Boosters.TV, for instance, allows homeworkers to learn at their own pace when it suits them. It is delivered via broadband to DVD quality; staff log on with a password, and line managers can monitor which modules people use and how often.

Group marketing manager Rachel Pollard says: “In the classroom setting, lessons are presented and delegates go away. Our 30-40 minute courses on topics such as performance appraisal, diversity and stress management are broken down into chapters. The user can learn in modules, watch a topic two or three times and then revisit certain chapters.

Wrighthouse says Nationwide now uses e-learning. “On the intranet, we have built a development curve, where homeworkers and office-based people answer questions about their skills. A training skills gap analysis is generated with training options – courses, intranet skills modules, workbooks, videos – whatever appeals to their own learning style. An extrovert might prefer classroom training, whereas someone more reflective might be most effective with a workbook or CD. Some topics, however, say negotiating skills, have to be developed through face-to-face practice.”

There are other factors. Howarth says: “It can be quite difficult for homeworkers to attend full-time training courses, especially if they have caring commitments. But at the same time, we don’t think people should learn in entire isolation, so we do like to see them in the office for face-to-face interaction.”

Vickers agrees: “Salford homeworkers can now access e-learning modules online, covering issues from health and safety and equality to time management. But we also like them to come into the work environment for regular training sessions. Every Wednesday, customer services is closed to the public until 10am and we use this for staff training.”

Learn informally

All this falls under the banner of formal training. But people also learn informally. Are such opportunities open to homeworkers?

The CIPD’s Clake says: “Employers must remember the importance of coaching from managers, and networking and information exchange with colleagues. Informal learning can be as simple as listening to how colleagues manage problems, or picking up technical pointers during coffee machine chats. So homeworkers need to know they can call colleagues and talk things through without being penalised.”

But at Salford, Vickers has found a different answer. “When we ask homeworkers about this, many say that when in the office, they used to ask supervisors for support. But at home, they take responsibility and ownership and think things through themselves. That’s been a big learning curve in homeworkers’ development – getting away from over-reliance on others. Homeworkers are now saying they have greater confidence to make decisions on their own.”

Make sure to select your homeworkers carefully, and understand what they will be facing and take the time to set them up. Give them the same development opportunities as office-based people, and a range of learning media, and you may find that homeworkers develop beyond your expectations.

Top tips

  • Before people start homeworking assess their hard and soft learning needs.
  • Use appraisals to keep learning up to date.
  • Ensure homeworkers get equal access to training as the employees at the corporate site.
  • Offer training that matches their learning styles.
  • Remember both formal and informal training.
  • Offer a range of learning media.
  • Take homeworkers’ family commitments and travel time into account.
  • Value the development benefits of working from home.

Case study

Denplan in Winchester – ranked 11th in the 2006 Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies to Work for list- places great emphasis on work-life balance, with around 50 of its 340 staff working from home.

All new homeworkers have their IT, IT security and job skills updated. Their home office setup is assessed and they receive health and safety training, revisited every year. Six-monthly appraisals identify further development needs, which are integrated into staff personal development plans. Both homeworkers and office-based staff benefit from self-management skills training such as problem solving and decision-making.
Managing director Stephen Gates is passionate about keeping everyone informed and included, and holds quarterly company briefings, timed so everyone including homeworkers can attend, and filmed in case anyone misses them.

Denplan believes in a blend of learning methods. In-house training is instructor-led, starting at 9:30 am to enable everyone to get in, and the company is trialling e-learning – initially just for IT skills, but eventually for other topics.

by Maureen Moody

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