Working from home is a concept that’s constantly being mulled over by employers and employees as they try to maximise profits, relieve staff of the stress of the commute and redress the work/life balance. But modern technology has made it easier than ever for many office-based tasks to be carried out away from the employer’s premises.
It’s easy to forget that there was a time when most of us were home workers. Tradespeople, be they iron workers, carpenters, farmers or tailors, would often have their workplaces joined to their homes. It was only when the Industrial Revolution came along and huge machines automated many of the manual skills that it became normal to work in factories. Administrative staff would soon follow. In time, the idea that we would have a place where we would “go to work” became the norm. Then along came electricity, and daylight hours stopped being an issue. We had become in thrall to the workplace.
The Age of Service Industry
While it’s necessary to have large, immobile machines in one place and for their operators to travel to them, the same isn’t true for many office-based staff. Administrative workers, HR departments, secretaries, programmers, designers, traders and planners can often carry out their daily work without having to be in the same building as their colleagues. Nor, indeed, do many managers.
Nowadays the majority of such workers will be computer literate and have an IT system at home that would have been the preserve of only the most high-tech industries just a decade ago. Broadband providers no longer bother advertising it as “always-on” because that’s a given, and we now have packages coming into our homes that can reach 100Mb/second with unlimited bandwidth. At these speeds, office tasks can be carried out in the cloud with ease using powerful applications such as the Office 365 suite, and even more bandwidth-hungry tasks such as video editing can be carried out remotely. Meetings can happen virtually using video conferencing, and VoIP phone calls and instant messaging can keep the workforce interconnected. In addition, the IT department can itself be based off-site; many technical fixes can be done online by remote access.
And, indeed, more of are doing just that. A 2013 YouGov survey commissioned by RingCentral found that an incredible 93% of UK employees work from home at least some of the time. According to a 2013 TUC report, remote working in the UK rose by 470,000 between 2007 and 2012, finally reaching the 4 million figure. There was quite a disparity between regions, too. The rise was a mere 2.4% in the South West, compared to 22.3% on the South East. And Northern Ireland actually saw a drop of 1.2% over the five-year period. There is also a stark gender separation: 2.6 million are male, whereas 1.4 million are female, although the proportions were even wider in 2007.
Even if employers end up paying for their staff to be connected to the internet, the cost implications for business are difficult to deny. Employing staff in a building is costly because first a business needs a building large enough to accommodate them all, and then it needs to provide enough toilets, heating, seating, desks, lighting and working space for them. Growing businesses often look for larger premises before looking into the possibility of allowing some or all of their staff to work remotely. While there will always be staff members who value the social aspect of the office and prefer a nine-to-five routine, it can be enlightening for employers to actually ask their employees how they would feel about remote working, possibly for a day or two a week.
There are fewer and fewer compelling reasons for such tasks not to be carried out from home.
The Work/Life Balance
It’s unfortunate that so many workers spend so much of their time commuting. An hour a day getting to work, then sitting in front of a computer screen all day before spending another hour getting back home in the evening – it all adds up. Ten hours a week works out at over 1200 days’ worth of wakefulness over a 40-year working life.
Since the 1990s, industry has come to recognise the real benefits of allowing staff to maintain a good work/life balance. There are definite psychological advantages to working from home and spending time with the family. While the number of hours at the desk might be the same over the course of a week, the hours worked every day can be more flexible. A worker might be a lark or a night owl and therefore be more productive outside nine to five. They might be able to work while their children are at school and then again when they’re in bed. And most importantly, they’re not wasting ten hours every week sitting in a traffic jam or crammed into a train.
Successful remote working requires buy-in from the employer and the employee, but once companies start doing it, they often find it difficult to go back to the office from Monday to Friday. Some companies use a halfway-house approach, offering home-working Fridays or allowing staff to spend a day of their choice at home, perhaps as a gateway to fully abandoning the office. In 2012 Splashtop created the Work from Home Fridays movement, creating a cute infographic that delivered a host of stats supporting their campaign. One claim was that “80% of workers say they maintain a better work-life balance by telecommuting”. However, many employers that have taken the remote working route feel it’s important to maintain links between staff members and make sure there are meetings once or twice a month and social events to promote bonding.
The technology is in place to allow millions of UK workers to operate from home. We now have reliable, fast and cheap internet connections, cloud computing for documents, online applications such as Office 365 for all our tasks, video conferencing and complete mobile freedom offered by 4G connectivity, phones, tablets and laptops. It has never been easier to work from home, and the social benefits are clear to see. It doesn’t even have to be a case of “taking the plunge” – experimenting with different working patterns and procedures and introducing them gradually will help companies and employees find a balance where they’re most productive, happier and more profitable.