Nobody likes being stuck in traffic, but whilst for the majority of us it's just an annoying part of our everyday life, for businesses this is a far more serious issue. According to the Eddington Transport Study conducted a few years ago, the UK economy loses £8 billion per year thanks to congestion, and by 2025 this figure is likely to reach £22 billion. I believe the solution to the problem is for businesses to move away from traditional working practices, allowing their workforce to be more flexible and mobile.
Last week's Commute Smart Week aimed to raise awareness of the ways employers and employees can work together to make our commute during the winter months less painful and more efficient. Indeed, small changes like encouraging staff to get on a bicycle instead of the tube, commuting outside peak hours, having a virtual meeting instead of travelling, or working from home can make all the difference. With increased technology uptake, especially tablets and smartphones, people are better connected and can work from any location. The question is, with all the cultural and behavioural barriers, are we ready as a nation to step from theory to practice?
Over the last few years, I've seen more and more companies realising the many benefits available from remote working such as increased employee productivity, reduced costs from travel and office space and better work-life balance for employees. The widely discussed "bring-your-own-device" phenomenon also provides a great opportunity to support this initiative, by allowing employees to access work content from their own mobile devices wherever they are.
However, there are challenges to overcome too. For example, when an employee first starts to work remotely they are on their own and it can be a bit of a learning curve. There is a challenge in terms of getting people to know what to do to connect to the office. Organisations need to ensure they have support mechanisms in place so that the home worker knows what to do if their PC stops working or they cannot connect to the network. Your IT department should be able to take control of the home PC over the office connection, then the remote worker doesn't need to come into the office to get it fixed.
Another important thing to think of, is how employers can retain constructive colleague relationships and a sense of shared purpose when meetings are conducted over the phone or via video conferencing, rather than in person. To maintain camaraderie, I'd suggest putting in place a number of simple rules. For example, you can require all employees to use Instant Messenger so that they are always contactable and accessible to colleagues. It's important to encourage video calls rather than phone calls, so people can 'see' each other (this is vital for employee relationships as body language is a critical factor). You can also hold your weekly team meetings via video, and run video business review sessions so that everyone feels up-to-date with what is going on in the company.
There's no reason why line management cannot be handled in the same way as if employees were based in the office. Your staff should still have regular review meetings and be given targets. A recent study suggests that people who work from home get promoted less often; to avoid this, managers need to be incentivised to lead by example when encouraging home working. But the most important thing in my opinion is creating a culture of trust. Establishing this is a key issue for leadership if employees cannot see their managers every day. If you are trusted to get your work done, whatever your location, this significantly improves your productivity and loyalty.
I believe in ten years' time virtual workplaces will become a way of life for most businesses. In the meantime, nothing prevents companies from testing this new concept of working on a temporary basis, like O2 did earlier this year. The results might surprise you.