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Top tips to keep your home-based workers part of the team

08 August 2014

Top tips to keep your home-based workers part of the team

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With the summer break underway, harassed parents in particular will see the chance to ease the pain of childcare arrangements; for others, an opportunity to break with routine and feel the freedom over the summer. Employers get more engaged staff, more willing to pick up on important requests out of hours (as well as the potential savings from scaling down office resources).

Everyone's a winner. Or are they?

More working from home inevitably means less connection with the workplace and the risks of isolation, de-motivation and a diminished sense of self-worth.

The shift to home and flexible working is, of course, something much bigger than the new legislation. The whole nature of organisations and work is changing on the back of easy digital communications and the pressure for more flexibility and efficiency at work. By 2015 it's predicted more than 37% of the workforce globally will be 'mobile workers', based from home or travelling away from the HQ (or 1.3 billion employees, according to IDC figures).

More home-based working can be seen as an easy win for businesses looking for more straightforward ways to squeeze overheads for the long-term. An RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) study last year found that employees with flexible working arrangements - involving more home-working - reported an average gain of 5 hours per week, worth £4,200 per annum per employee; and reducing the amount of time people spent at their workstations also brought savings. The research reported that flexible workers felt more valued and trusted by their organisations and were more motivated as a result. Flexible workers also reported that their work patterns gave more opportunities for fulfilling parenting roles, reduced stress, and more chance to exercise and live a healthier life.

The figures might look good in this study, and there's no doubt it's possible to make material gains from the approach - but it's important to analyse the topic a little further. Home-working involves a fundamental transformation in the way work is practiced and experienced: the day-to-day of what work looks and feels like, relationships with other staff, a sense of involvement with the organisation's culture and the ways in which people engage with their manager. The result is a host of potential issues for the line-manager around relationships, motivation, communication, and team dynamics.

The dilemmas of home-working

A general rule on home-working for all isn't going to work. Any policy needs to take into account the needs of individual personalities; who's suited to home-working, and also, whether they have the skills to do it effectively. Common sense says that an employee with an extrovert personality style is more likely to feel isolated and struggle with the idea of working alone for long periods. But at the same time, it might be just the opportunity to help focus the extrovert on tasks and avoid the inevitable distractions of a busy office. A quieter, more reflective person may cope very easily and be productive at home, without needing to join the social side of life with the team - but then the team may miss out on their expertise, knowledge and experience.

Becoming disconnected from the workplace can affect any personality type. The most frequent issue that we hear on our Employee Assistance Programme helpline is the isolation and lack of support that home-workers experience. They often feel that they are not cared about, and that their only value is their on-line presence. There is a sense of the soul of the person being lost in home-working. And also, of course, going to work can sometimes be a valuable 'release-valve' from problems and pressures at home - what happens when there's no escape?

Team-working is valuable for everyone. The competition encourages motivation and drive, while collaboration and creativity can often be the most rewarding part of people's jobs. On the flip side, managing issues and conflict becomes very difficult when relationships are mostly at a distance. The tone and content of messages sent via email can be misinterpreted, particularly if the home-worker is already feeling stressed, isolated or paranoid. Home-workers tend to miss out on the all-important intangibles of working for an organisation, the culture, the sense of being part of something worthwhile, of having a strong leader and direction, and to share in the warmth, support, care and praise.

How to keep people supported at home

Reaping the benefits is dependent on a strong basis of support and understanding for individual employees. Here are some suggested approaches to help that happen:

Run a trial period: make home-working an option to explore and discuss rather than leaving the move purely in the hands of employees. Take time to evaluate the pros and cons with the employee at the start of a trial and after they've had a chance to experience what it really means.

Explicit targets measurement: measuring output, progress against targets, levels of achievement and productivity - and making this transparent for manager and employee - is a way of providing a sense of clear direction and reassurance for employees that they're doing what's needed and prevent detachment and lack of motivation.

Focus on wellbeing: include a measure of wellbeing and health within the targets set, so whilst productivity may increase at home, personal isolation may go down. It is the responsibility of the employee and manager to weigh these up together. Managers need to be aware of the key role of wellbeing, and generally in keeping their team connected, engaged and involved.

Encourage staff to compartmentalise:  strict boundaries are required, for both time and space. Having a separate work location is essential, with a door and filing space that can be closed and even locked when not in use. Routines of work can still be applied at home, like dressing for work, and personal rules can help (around having breaks, managing interruptions, making social visits, cooking meals).