At holiday company Freedom Direct, sales staff who work from home may be out of sight, but they’re certainly not out of mind. In fact, managing director Nick Jackson knows exactly what they’re doing and how productive they are.
That’s down to a hefty dose of technology. The company, which operates under the trading name holidaysyoulike.com, uses an inbound call-handling system to incorporate homeworkers seamlessly into its call centre team.
So when a customer phones Freedom Direct to make an enquiry or book a holiday, they have no idea whether their call has been routed to someone on the company’s premises or in their own home.
Meanwhile, the system allows Jackson and his team to check which homeworkers are logged on or off and to monitor the calls they handle for quality.
It also provides the Freedom Direct team with a wealth of productivity metrics. “We can see how many calls homeworkers have taken and how many they’ve converted into sales,” says Jackson.
“We know how long those calls last and we are alerted if someone has taken too many or too few calls, so that we can identify any problems quickly and get them resolved.”
In other words, home-based staff working for Freedom Direct are subject to exactly the same monitoring and measurement as their call centre-based counterparts. That has given the company the confidence to extend the homeworking option to one-third of its 90-strong sales team, says Jackson.
But is it possible to keep such close tabs on employees doing other kinds of work from home? After all, many managers still have concerns about the productivity of homeworkers. About one in five hear: “I’m taking it easy” when an employee says: “I’m working from home today”, according to research conducted earlier this year by communications specialist Mitel.
In that survey of 1,200 managers and employees, more than one-third (37%) of managers said that, if allowed to work from home, they believed staff would use working hours as down-time and take longer lunches, for example. Meanwhile, 30% thought that employees would use the time to arrange their social lives.
For the die-hard sceptics it’s certainly possible, from a technical point of view, to monitor homeworkers electronically as they sit at their PCs or laptops.
One way is to analyse server logs, the files that are automatically created by large back-office computers listing all the activities they perform. These will indicate, for any given point in time, who is logged on to a system or application and how long they use it for. Web server logs, for example, can identify what websites a homeworker has visited and for how long, and e-mail server logs provide an audit trail of all messages sent and received.
It’s even possible to keep a record of everything that is typed by a homeworker, using keystroke monitoring software on their PCs or via a device attached to their keyboards.
But electronic monitoring of staff can be a legal minefield, says Louise Townsend, a senior associate at law firm Pinsent Masons. “The law clearly states that employees have a ‘reasonable expectation’ of privacy, and that applies whether they’re working from home or on company premises, so basically the same guidance applies,” she says.
First, human resources (HR) needs to put in place an acceptable usage policy that clearly outlines the company’s rules about how e-mail and the internet should (and shouldn’t) be used and get employees to sign up to it. Second, HR must be able to demonstrate that the company has made ‘reasonable effort’ to tell workers that their activities may be monitored.
“If you do decide to go down the monitoring road, you must ensure that the way you apply it is fair and consistent – that is to say, monitoring is either entirely random or it’s only used where the company has a specific and reasonable cause for concern,” Townsend advises.
But just because electronic monitoring is technically possible, doesn’t make it a good idea, adds Dave Dunbar, head of BT Workstyle, the division of the telecommunications group that originally introduced flexible working at BT, and now works with corporate and government customers to help them implement flexible working policies.
“If you’re that paranoid about what homeworkers are getting up to, you might as well go the whole hog and install a webcam on their PC so that you can check up on them while they work,” Dunbar jokes. “If you don’t spy on your staff in the office, then why do it when they are working from home?”
He has seen no evidence that homeworkers are more likely to slack off – in fact, his experience suggests the opposite is true. More than 12,840 BT employees work from home on a permanent or semi-permanent basis, he points out – and those who do are 21% more productive and take less sick leave.
Electronic monitoring can also be extremely bad for workforce relations, says Scott McArthur, a former HR director and now a consultant in HR and change management at IT services company Atos Origin. “If you presuppose that everyone is skiving, you’re quickly going to find that your recruitment and retention efforts are going down the drain,” he says.
“No-one wants to work for an employer that doesn’t trust them to get on with their job and, while there will always be a handful of people who abuse the system, you can’t run a company along the same lines as a police state,” he says.
A more constructive style of monitoring is based on clear and ongoing communication, says Peter Thompson, director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College. “You need to manage homeworkers by results – are they hitting targets and meeting deadlines, for example, and is their work of the expected quality?”
It is important for managers and homeworkers to agree on how they will check in with one another, how and when work will be completed, and how employee performance will be measured in terms of daily, weekly and monthly targets, he says.
This approach will give a more accurate indication as to whether an employee can successfully work from home or not. “Log-ins and mouse clicks don’t really tell you that much about whether an employee is working,” points out Thompson. “Electronic monitoring may give the perception of working, but actual work output is a far more reliable way to judge a homeworker’s productivity.”
Keep in touch
Technology, he argues, should be used “to empower homeworkers, not enslave them” – a point echoed by Jane Zeal, strategic planning and marketing manager in the personal systems group of IT company Hewlett-Packard.
Instant messaging (IM), for example, can provide homeworkers with the regular interaction and social contact with colleagues that many say they miss.
Zeal says: “When you sign in to IM at the start of the day you’re walking into a virtual workplace where you join your team, irrespective of the physical location of individual members.”
At the same time, IM enables managers to see that team members are online and to get in touch with them quickly, if needed. If they don’t receive a rapid response to their message – which typically arrives with a clearly audible ‘ping’ – then that’s a pretty good indication that a homeworker has strayed away from their desk.
But if an employer genuinely feels the need to keep a closer eye on its employees than that, then they may simply not be ready to consider offering homeworking as an option.
Case study: coventry university enterprises
In the five years that Coventry University Enterprises (CUE) has been running its Location Independent Working scheme, no-one has been asked to leave the programme for reasons of poor performance, according to head of homeworking, Jane Rawlings-Purcell.
She puts that down to a formal, closely managed policy that introduces employees to flexible working in a structured manner and provides them with ongoing support.
As a result, more than half of CUE’s 166-strong staff now work out of the office three days a week, and an average of 10 more join the independent working scheme every three to six months.
That’s great for their work-life balance, she says, but there’s also a solid business case underpinning the programme.
As the commercial arm of Coventry University, CUE is responsible for helping businesses to identify market opportunities and then providing them with the consultancy, applied research and teaching support they need to take advantage of them.
These clients tend to be small, dynamic start-up organisations that expect their CUE contacts to be mobile and accessible to them outside of usual working hours, so flexible working plays a key role in operational effectiveness, she says.
What sets CUE’s flexible-working policy apart from similar initiatives at other companies?
Employees cannot opt for independent working until they have worked for CUE for at least three months. “By that time, we know them as individuals and are familiar with their preferred styles of working. Also, they’ve come to know us better and they understand the culture here,” Rawlings-Purcell explains.
All participants have a trial period of three months, so that they can ‘try before they buy’ and see if homeworking suits their work style and their personality.
All staff on independent working receive regular training on relevant work-life balance techniques and are briefed on health and safety regulations for the home-office environment.
Independent working participants are expected to meet regular targets and objectives, set for them by their manager. “As a participant myself, one of my objectives is to ensure that 65% of our workforce is signed up to it by July 2008, from today’s figure of 58%,” she says.
Participants can be withdrawn from the scheme by their managers. If that action is taken because their performance is not up to scratch, just one week’s notice is required. If it occurs because of operational reasons (for example, a particular project requires an employee’s presence on site) then one month’s notice is given.
The results of this approach have been impressive. In a recent survey of independent working participants, more than two-thirds (70%) reported an increase in productivity between 40% and 100% over previous rates.
Costs per employee have been halved, from £6,000 per annum to £3,000 for office-based workers who are now working remotely. And the floor space freed up by employees working remotely has been leased to tenants, generating £68,000 a year in extra revenue.