Working from home - Corporate masterstroke or slackers delight?

Advances in communication, through e-mails, social media and video conferencing has, many would argue, made the office environment obsolete, to the extent that many financial giants are sending employees home to work. Gareth Samuel investigates whether the concept of working from home is a slackers dream or a corporate masterstroke.

For many, the idea of working from home is solely reminiscent of Homer Simpson casually letting Springfield nuclear power plant slide gradually into meltdown from his computer while asleep on the couch – which may be the reason so many Directors are so quick to dismiss it.

But this year, the issue has been put under further scrutiny as some of the world’s biggest businesses encourage their employees to stay at home to save millions on rent charges, energy bills and office consumables.

Twitter, Facebook and Google are some of the most forward thinking businesses on the planet, and every one of them has policies in place that allow their employees to work from home, provided levels of productivity do not drop. Many franchises are pioneering working from home as their business models are built around the idea that office space is quickly becoming an unnecessary expense.

My Destination is a travel franchise powered by local experts that recruits franchise owners to provide travel information on the destination they are from. My Destination franchise owners have the option to work from home, lowering the initial cost of setting up their businesses. Auditel Cost Management franchise owners also work from home, recruiting clients to become an outsourced member of their management team.

On paper, the benefits make working from home a no-brainer. Office space, whether rented or purchased, is a huge expense for a business and can be reduced massively by allowing employees to stay home. Many companies that have these policies keep a skeleton office in constant operation to welcome customers and conduct meetings, but providing every employee with an individual desk can now be perceived as almost decadent.

On top of this, energy bills, office consumables, stationery costs and disposal charges all add up – not to mention the extra travel cost to the employee. However companies often worry about the prospect of employees cutting their work rate if they are not supervised, hence businesses increasingly seek communicative alternatives.

Michael Grant, CEO of UCi2i, a company that provides video conferencing facilities, believes working from home is the future of modern business: “We have seen a definite increase in people using our services over the last few years. The economic crisis has made people swap expensive office space and travel costs for video conferencing. Plus our system helps businesses cross international borders much easier than having to fly out to somewhere.

“We are not trying to completely replace physical meetings because sometimes documents need to be signed but I believe 80 per cent of meetings could be replaced by video conferencing.” For smaller businesses, where every cost typically has more impact, making employees work from home can be an even greater money-saver.

One of the biggest issues that CEO’s have with the whole concept of working from home is that taking a laissez-faire approach to management indirectly encourages distraction. This debate centres on perceived reduced productivity in the home that has come from years of societal association with the office as a place of work and the home as a place of leisure – it is certainly not inconceivable that this is an out-dated concept in 2013.

Michael adds: “Companies generally do see the benefits in productivity from employees working from home. If you are a lazy person then you will be lazier at home, but if you are a good worker and you want to succeed then generally you will be far more productive working from home” “Working from home also helps the work/life balance. I work from home all the time; I usually get up at five and catch the train into work, but by working from home I can just go downstairs and get started immediately.”

Evidence to support Michael’s view is plentiful too. In their book, ‘Why Managing Sucks, and how to fix it’, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson write: “When people are treated like children, they act out. And we have proved that organisations can trust their employees to own their own work without out-dated HR policies regarding office hours. The notion that ‘some people just need more structure’ was exposed for what it really is: another way of saying ‘I don’t know how to effectively manage the work so now I am going to manage you.”

The pair are founders of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) movement, which is a strategy aimed at allowing employees to take control of their own workloads by working from home and being assessed solely on the work they produce regardless of time spent working.

The thought process behind the ROWE movement is that by trusting your employees to work independently, they will respond positively and increase their productivity. According to a recent survey completed by UCi2i, employers that allow their staff to work from home, gain an extra 24 days worth of work per year from their employees.

Michael concludes: “Working from home does require trust. But, as a business, if you don’t trust your employees then why would you hire them?”

Many franchises are waking up to the idea that, in some cases, the office environment may be superfluous to the successful operation of their business. To many, meeting physically is a prerequisite of conducting business. But in this age of ultra-communication and rocketing travel expenses, working from home, either by investing in a home-based franchise or allowing employees to forego the office environment could be the best way to establish a forward thinking business.

The Homework Debate 2013:

FEB: Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer made national headlines when she brought employees back into the office, she issued a memo that stated: “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together”

FEB: Virgin founder, Sir Richard Branson responded to Mayer’s memo by declaring Virgin would continue to keep employees working remotely, he reported: “Working life isn’t 9-5 any more. The world is connected. Companies that do not embrace this are missing a trick.”

MAR: Silicon Valley companies pledged their future to home-based employment. One twitter spokesperson told the Daily Mail: “We recognise it’s important to be able to work remotely”

JUN: UCi2i research found that from 1000 office workers surveyed, as many as 94 per cent worked better from home, they stated tranquility for productivity, improved work/life balance and decreased time spent travelling as reasons.