In recent years, more small businesses have introduced flexible working practices and as a result an unprecedented number are now embracing the benefits. Whether allowing staff to work more flexibly within the office or remotely, there is an abundance of research proving it can enhance productivity, improve work/life balance, reduce sick days, boost staff retention, lower space requirements and cutback energy costs.
However, it’s worth remembering that without the correct implementation, appropriate management and guidance, flexibility can actually have a negative impact on your business.
Home alone – avoiding isolation
The most common risk flexible working presents is isolation. Many flexible workers fall into the habit of spending excessive amounts of time working remotely, and such prolonged isolation can destroy morale, break down team cohesion and even be a significant cause of stress. This is partly due to communication being broken down, therefore stress is not as easily defused as it would be in a traditional working environment. So it is critical that workers stay connected through various forms of communication. A good way of doing this is through the encouragement of using tools such as instant messaging, video conferencing, team intranet pages and social media applications.
Managers should also be made aware of the first signs of isolation, so that support can be offered in the first instance. However, it is important that all team members are bonded and keep in touch with each other.
Returning to the office
Maintaining a good calendar of workplace meetings and events will mean remote workers must inevitably return to the office and remain connected. By providing a pleasant and well-supported workspace, implementing an open desk policy and providing and casual spaces for impromptu meetings you’ll also increase the likelihood of visits from those based at home. If a workspace supports the flexible worker’s needs, they are more inclined to use it and therefore, the prospect of isolation, stress and weakened working relationships, will drop.
Home health and safety
Few bosses are aware that they are as responsible for safety of the home-worker as they are for staff in the office. When you consider that as an employer, you may be responsible for an environment you cannot see, control or monitor, it becomes apparent how challenging this task actually is! But the best place to start is by requesting that staff designate a single area of the home to becoming their workspace. Then ask them to perform a thorough self-assessment of this particular environment. This could involve using a simple checklist, which evaluates risks such as trip hazards, lighting visual hazards, access, equipment, air quality, storage, noise, accidents, emergency procedures and ergonomic furniture. In addition, staff can stream footage or provide an image of their designated working space.
When it comes to managing staff, it is important that line managers do not give the impression they are making regular “check-ups” on remote workers. This will make them feel they are not trusted. Trust is critical in the relationship between manager and remote worker. Instead, a line manager should assess workload by output rather than time and approach the method of remote communication in a supportive and collaborative manner. Staff should feel their manager is present for their assistance and not to time them on their tasks.
It has been discovered that the countries working the shortest hours are the most productive. Greece has the highest hours worked in Europe, but also one of the lowest levels of productivity. So staff should be encouraged to determine a time when they stop working and should stick to this. This can be reinforced through messaging or communication with other assigned home workers (or office-based colleagues) that can monitor and check homeworking staff are finishing at a designated time. Banning emails after a certain hour can also prevent this.
After working hours, it is important laptops aren’t later opened just to check emails, that work mobiles are left on silent and not regularly checked. If you maintain the right form of communication and management, the benefits flexibility offers will be plentiful.
Colin Stuart is the managing director of workplace consultancy Baker Stuart.
Kicking off the launch of Corporate Insights, a new interview series in which we hear from senior decision makers at large global firms about how they get the job done, two heads of Vodafone discuss the emergence of flexible working, implementation and what it really means for SMEs.
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