Is working from home as productive as working in the office?

If conservative MP Boris Johnson becomes the new mayor of London next year, he may have to work that little bit harder to win the support of the capital’s teleworkers, after ridiculing the idea of working from home as one big skive.

In an article on his website, Johnson claims that working from home is nothing more than “a euphemism for sloth, apathy, staring out of the window and random surfing of the internet.”

Although he has a reputation of being deliberately provocative and his argument was largely about the need to improve the transport infrastructure, his musings do raise some interesting points about homeworking.

He argued that the vast majority of people still work in an office, and that experts hugely over-estimated the number of staff who would work from home, despite technology that easily enables this.

Preference for the office

He suggested that most people actually want to work in an office and fulfil the basic psychological and social need for daily human contact, conflict, motivation and friendship.

Most of us wouldn’t recognise Boris’s example of homeworking, which entails getting up late, having wine with lunch and watching TV – but his comments will certainly spark a debate.

Peter Thompson, director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College, says that Johnson’s vision is too simplistic.

“It’s not a case of all or nothing,” he said. “Working life tends to be more of a hybrid now, with people working from home some of the time, going to meetings and having some time in the office as well.”

Management concerns

He argued the number of people working from home has actually doubled in the past decade, but admitted that management techniques had not kept up with technological advances that allow people to work pretty much anywhere.

“Many managers have the same attitude – that homeworking is skiving. In fact, the opposite is usually true, with over-work more of a problem.

“The evidence shows homeworkers are actually more productive than office-based staff. Many people find they can work better at home away from the very distractions and office politics Boris talks about,” he said.

A recent poll by City & Guilds confirmed that many British managers were very uncomfortable with the idea of staff working from home, and were far happier dealing with people in the office.

Performance management

Vanessa Robinson, a research manager at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) said that while flexible working is largely a positive thing, many employers aren’t geared up to manage homeworking properly.

“In the extreme, homeworking can be quite lonely and people can feel isolated. Each case needs to be thought out properly to make sure it suits the employer, customer and individual needs.

“Not all organisations have performance management systems that are robust enough to measure homeworkers’ productivity and wellbeing. It needs to be very carefully managed so that working from home isn’t seen as a day off by individuals or their colleagues,” she explained.

While Boris Johnson said the widely predicted explosion in homeworking has never materialised, Robinson said that’s because firms are using a mix of flexible methods instead of just going with remote working.

Slow take-up

However, it’s undeniable that take-up has been lower than anticipated with the UK lagging behind Europe in the number of firms offering teleworking. According to a survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), only 20% of British bosses allowed staff to work from home, compared with 40% elsewhere in the EU – yet half of the workforce wants to work more flexibly.

EOC chair Jenny Watson believes the continued tide of city centre commuters has more to do with employers’ reluctance to offer flexibility than with employees’ love of the traditional office.

“Flexible working is still too often seen as a concession for parents and carers and comes at the cost of poor pay and prospects,” she said.

Whatever the arguments for or against, there is a clear economic, environmental and organisational imperative to get more people working from home, but only if that can be done successfully.

HR can play a huge role in managing not only the process, but also the perception, so that working from home isn’t a way of getting a cheap day off, or seen by the workforce as a skiving opportunity.

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