Why remote working is not the end of the workplace
When Yahoo USA CEO Marissa Mayer distributed her controversial decree insisting all staff be based in their offices rather than work remotely, she not only shocked the business community with the draconian measure, she also dismayed workers accustomed to a high degree of flexibility in their working week. The edict was especially surprising coming from a working mother, a breed that typically appreciates flexible hours and the ability to work from home.
The memo circulated to all staff read: “…To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”
In the book “Remote: Office Not Required” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, Hansson argues that creating virtual workspaces allows workers to provide their vital contribution without physically clustering together. And this is just one opinion from a tidal wave of people waxing lyrical about the benefits of remote working. But what do Australian business leaders think? In 10 years will offices be debunk or will the idea of uniting as one under a common roof to work toward common goals still rein strong?
Lifelounge CEO Dion Appel doesn’t need to wield a stick to force employees into the office. “We don’t encourage people to work remotely,” he says, “it’s just not part of our culture. What we have built is an environment within Lifelounge that gets people excited to come to work. It’s more of a lifestyle hub the way that it’s structured in terms of being open plan with music playing, lounge areas and a coffee bar. I think we’ve almost been too successful in this and now I worry that my guys don’t get out enough”.
Instead Dion takes a different perspective on modern working modes. “My leaning is more about providing flexibility. What I expect from my staff is that I will give them flexibility on their hours and be generous about time-out providing that ‘when we are on, we’re ON’ and that means we burn the midnight oil and everyone on the project does that happily”.
For Dion, a great working environment is a key component in attracting great people and stimulating cross-team initiatives. “We’re in the business of creativity and ideas here, and whether you’re publishing something for the media business, or building something from a tech basis or copywriting for an agency client, you combine those skills and you get some pretty magical outcomes,” he smiles. Each quarter, Lifelounge holds ‘FBI sessions’ which stands for ‘f#*%ing BIG ideas’. “We have people in research as well as people in media and publishing as well as the creative agency. We pair people up across the group who wouldn’t usually work together and give them an open brief to come up with something fresh and big. And it can be for any purpose: for saving the world, to commercialise a new product, to create something for well being – it just has to be big, it’s got to be revolutionary and its got to affect change in a positive way,” he explains.
The winning concepts have been as diverse as personalised caskets that celebrate the deceased’s individuality better than a generic coffin to initiatives that link directly through to Lifelounge clients and have enhanced the ability to provide a better service or stimulated client growth. Ultimately, the FBI sessions are designed to engage everybody in an open forum, connect different people across the business and allow them to have fun together.
There is no doubt that collaboration can catalyse innovation however it does not necessarily need to be face-to-face. Mayer’s ban was widely criticised inside and beyond Yahoo’s walls. Even British billionaire Richard Branson weighed into the argument by saying “Give people the freedom of where to work… This seems a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever”. In February 2013, Microsoft Australia’s managing director Pip Marlow ordered her 830 staff not to come into the office. The ‘Summer Day Out’ was designed to promote flexible working and showcase Office 365 cloud technology as an enabler. It was deemed such a success that all Microsoft offices followed suit on 14 November and Microsoft’s entire 90,000 staff worked remotely for the day. For Pip Marlow it is becoming imperative to empower people to work remotely in a mobile environment by making sure people have both the tools and the culture to do so. That includes the right telephone, the right cloud technology to enable them, and then focusing on the outcomes not the input.
These days, technology makes it possible to fire up a virtual desktop on any enabled laptop or tablet, and mobile computing devices, cloud-based applications, video conferencing, instant messaging and even social media are all options to keep the workforce connected at dispersed locations. Moreover, the option to work remotely or flexibly cuts out a large degree of wasted time commuting and provides other advantages like reducing absenteeism, increasing staff retention and improving the ability to conduct business across multiple time zones.
Mayer’s memo noted that ‘speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home’ which flies in the face of Vanson Bourne’s research for Citrix that 83% of over 1000 CIOs across 11 countries believe that flexible working increases productivity. They are not alone in observing that flexible workers often work longer hours, are more accountable because they are less visible and have a heightened sense of loyalty to businesses that can accommodate flexible work practices.
For Jan Henderson, communications consultant and co-editor of (inside) magazine, the ability to work remotely is essential as she juggles multiple roles, clients and deadlines. On-paper Jan is contracted for two and a half days per week on the magazine but only goes into the Niche Media offices once a week on average. “I like to work at home where I feel more structured, more peaceful and more productive. When I do go into the office every now and then, I can make use of faster Internet for downloading images but it’s more for procedural things like attending meetings. It’s also always nice to catch up with our production team and other editors,” she notes.
Jan prefers to complete her work on her laptop in the small office area in her apartment, or on the couch when she is in writing mode. The reality is that her working week is never 9-5 Monday to Friday, but extends well after hours and into weekends. “I don’t get too uptight if I’m spending more time on one thing because there are benefits to other things. It’s just a matter of getting the work done when it needs to be done and respecting priorities,” she says.
According to Jan, Niche Media’s openness to flexible and remote working makes them one of the “smart” companies. “By enabling people to govern their own time, most people I know who work remotely also work more efficiently and effectively”.
Naturally there are both benefits and challenges inherent in remote working for both employees and employers. For businesses, allowing remote working sounds like a great way to lower your property costs. Simple equation: the less workers in the office, the less office space required, right?
According to Peter Reid, solutions architect at Kloud Solutions, businesses can thrive without a headquarters or office base. Being forced to operate outside of a traditional office environment can actually bring additional productivity improvements into the organisation. Their own business is a case in point, everyone works remotely. Kloud Solutions is a consultancy which means most of their staffers’ time is spent at client sites.
“We do have offices in each state that we do business in but it’s not much more than a place to send letters and parcels with a few seats and whiteboards” notes Peter. “Not having a central workspace forces our internal communication, formal and informal onto other channels. That means we now adopt really good tools for instant communication, [as well as] enterprise, social and virtualised meetings. These tools have additional side benefits like the ability to record, playback and search previous conversations which adds to our corporate memory”.
Whilst cost-savings may be achieved by reducing the office footprint, there are a number of IT factors that need to be carefully considered to support a remote or flexible workforce.
For Peter, a shift of thinking is required. “Rather than enabling remote workers, disable the office workers. That is take away any systems or services that are available only in the office” he suggests. Desk phones, PCs, invoicing and accounting systems can be removed from the office along with internal IT systems. These can all replaced by mobile and cloud based services that can be accessed anywhere so the mobile worker is not unfairly disadvantaged.
“We actively support organisations wanting to adopt remote workers, or reaching out to an existing pool of remote workers who are currently underserved by centralised office environments. Think of Coles or Spotless: both have large centralised offices of workers well served by the conveniences of shared office space, meeting rooms, desktop computers and information management systems. However both companies have most of their employees outside of the office, either working onsite at catering locations, mining sites or operating checkouts. These workers represent an under-engaged workforce who can now be served by Cloud based services delivered to BYOD (bring your own device) mobile devices. These services can be as simple as timesheets, rosters or much more complex business processes which were previously the sole domain of the office worker”.
Certainly one of the challenges for businesses with a remote or flexible labour force is maintaining or growing a healthy corporate culture, especially with the heavy reliance on electronic communication. Peter points out that ad-hoc non-work communication is also important to strengthen the bonds between employees across disciplines. This doesn’t happen incidentally in a remote working team who are focussed on a given project when they are all from the same discipline, so would need to be actively encouraged. He also suggests that regular planned physical meet ups, weekends away and social gatherings can be used to encourage, nurture and maintain a corporate culture.
“A central place or places to gather is important although it may not be physical. We huddle around chosen interest areas in cyberspace using Lync, Yammer, SharePoint and WordPress rather than the water cooler,” he says. The state of office life is certainly changing. In a technologically enabled world of increasing work choices, decision makers may find a balance by investing in systems that enable flexibility in the workforce without overlooking the importance of healthy doses of old-fashioned face-time.
State of the nation :: Australian attitudes to flexible and remote working
According to a new research entitled ‘Home is Where the Work is’ from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) published in October 2013:
* an estimated 5.6 million Australians aged 18 years and over used the Internet to work from home this year.
* 2.8 million Australians worked from home at least two days a week
* 863,000 worked away from the office one day a week
* 68% of digital workers used their own laptop or one provided by their employer to work away from the office. 33% used smartphones and 21% used tablets while 30% of respondents accessed the Internet on their PC.
* 95% of respondents reported benefits working from home including flexibility, opportunity to get more work done and access to home comforts.
* only 24 per cent of workers cited reduced access to communications services
* only 20 per cent said they missed having access to work colleagues
* more than half said there were no negatives associated from working away from the office
The ACMA report, ‘Home is Where the Work is‘, studied 2400 consumers and 1500 small to medium enterprises (SMEs) during May 2013.
Content production by Freya Lombardo
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