The mobile workforce: a look at the shift away from working in the office

The role of the traditional office is changing rapidly as employers and staff across Europe increasingly look to adopt smarter ways of working.

These are the findings of a new report which points to an increasingly mobile workforce, where more than 70% of people consider themselves completely independent in where they can work.

The 2007 Flexible Working Survey, compiled by facilities management firm Johnson Controls, shows that employers are using a mixed approach to how and where staff work.

Rather than completely abandoning the traditional corporate office, the research shows that employees are using a mix of home, remote and office working as part of a combined package.

More than 60% of the staff questioned said they used a combination of office, home and remote working, while 35% said it was not important to go into the office at all.

The research shows that flexible working has become far more mainstream in the past five years, with staff spending more time hot-desking, working from home, or working remotely.

Paul Bartlett, chairman of the Office Productivity Network, said the way employers and staff think about ‘the office’ is changing.

“This year’s survey demonstrates how we are moving on from the flexibility of time to encompass flexibility of place,” he said. “The emphasis on corporate space is now as a place for interaction and communication.”

The average amount of time spent working in a corporate office has fallen from 55% in 2002 to just 18% in the latest survey. During the same period, the amount of time spent working remotely has grown by 21%, while homeworking has risen by 16%.

The study also found that greater flexibility has a positive effect on staff, with 67% of workers claiming it actually improves relationships with managers and colleagues.

The latest CBI/Pertemps Employment Trends survey published in September also highlights big increases in flexible working.

The poll of more than 500 firms shows that 95% are offering some form of flexible working, with home and remote working showing the most dramatic increase.

CBI deputy-director general John Cridland said that 46% of firms now let staff work remotely or from home, compared to just 11% in 2001.

“That teleworking has quadrupled in three years is testament to how far and fast firms have come in adopting new technologies for the benefit of staff and the business. Others will also be using the technology to reduce their carbon footprint, as ever-increasing numbers of firms seek to help combat climate change,” he said.

Peter Thompson, director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College, said encouraging a mixed approach was good for business and productivity.

“Most research around flexible working shows that it increases productivity. Technology means that people can be totally independent but staff still like a sense of interaction, which is why hot-desking can be so popular.

However, this type of working must be carefully managed, with 81% of homeworkers feeling less visible to managers, and almost half feeling isolated from colleagues. A further 39% said remote working was damaging their chances of promotion.

“There’s a huge role for HR, because all the policies need to be just as robust for those who aren’t in the office,” Thompson says. “Managers also need to be educated about how they should actually manage remote and homeworkers, because it requires different skills.”

Whatever the pros and cons, Dr Marie Puybaraud, director of facilities innovation at Johnson Controls, thinks the trend for new ways of working is set to continue.

“While the workplace still plays an essential role, it is more as a place where people meet, share ideas , interact and socialise,” she explains. “There is evidence of a high level of employee engagement with staff taking control of how they work.”

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