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Dispelling the Myths: Flexible Working Doesn't Have to Mean Working From Home

16/01/2013 10:50 GMT | Updated 16/03/2013 09:12 GMT

Old-fashioned views mean many are missing out on the opportunities offered by anywhere working

Most of us will just be returning, maybe reluctantly, from our Christmas breaks. We're back to the daily commute, contending with school runs and weather concerns and probably wishing we could be anywhere but back in the office!

January is often recognised as a tough time for commuters - largely because of the risk of travel disruption due to wintry weather, but also because of low morale levels after the holiday season.

The Chartered Management Institute has recently cited motoring experts asking "Can you work remotely, or change your schedule?" The CMI titled its article "Think about working from home if it's snowy, says expert" but the conflation between "working from home" and "remote working" is telling; far too often the terms are used interchangeably when in fact they can be very different concepts.

Part of the reason Microsoft selected the term 'Anywhere Working' for its campaign - and as the name of the Anywhere Working Consortium that we founded in partnership with a number of other bodies who promote flexible working practices - was to promote the advantages of working more flexibly in terms of time and place. It was also to avoid the myth that if you're not working from the office then you are automatically working (or, to sceptics, shirking) from home.

Of course, the myth persists in part because of the 'WFH' term seen on many a shared calendar as a shorthand term to tell colleagues and others not to expect you on the pod that day. You are not physically in work but you are working and available on some form of communications medium at least some of the time.

It's certainly true that lots of people do work from home and the saving on commute time as well as ability to work from a comfortable, private environment can be a big part of the appeal. For others, though, working from home can be impossible for a number of reasons - lack of broadband (or even mobile cellular) coverage, screaming children, the lure of household chores and a myriad other distractions. Those who work permanently or near-permanently from home can easily become disengaged and can be less likely to add to creative thinking or get closer to customers and partners, even if they make good use of communications tools.

Of course it's dependent on the job in hand, but other forms of remote working can be more productive, letting people work on site with customers and partners, even making use of what would have been 'dead time' travelling.

Today, most places are potential work zones. With faster connectivity and a broad range of mobile devices - smartphones, tablets and laptops - that suit different tasks, it's possible for knowledge workers to accomplish a lot. That means when in transit, on site with clients or partners, from hospitality environments such as hotels, cafes and bars, or drop in co-working places like Club Workspace and 'third spaces', the catch-all term to describe places that aren't home and aren't work. Even pubs and libraries are being adapted to act as hubs for local workers, giving a new lease of life to buildings and taking the weight off our roads and public transport networks. So long as there's the chance to plug in for power and internet, you can work and the environment will have an effect on the work you do. Co-working environments might let you brainstorm and run ideas for a presentation or new business by a colleague, snatched 15-minute journeys will be good for catching up on email, home working might be ideal for a longer chunk of work where peace and isolation are needed.

The great news is that wherever you work, the tools are getting better. Mobile operator EE now offers 4G in the UK and the same service will soon be offered by other carriers. Wi-Fi is appearing more in trains, black cabs, coaches and the London Underground and is also set to get much faster with 2013's 802.11ac scheduled to deliver 1 gigabit-per-second speeds. The net effect of all this: a smoother surfing experience in more places, even with video and other resource-hungry activities.

Once again it's a case of stressing that 'work' is not a place to go but an activity... and there is rarely a reason for employees not to be productive, which should mean greater control of time for employees and a better balance of working and personal lives.

Scott Dodds is the General Manager of Marketing & Operations for Microsoft UK. His is responsible for orchestrating the direction and success of the sales, marketing and services resources in each of the business groups, strategy and planning for the UK subsidiary, as well as leading the marketing teams responsible for promoting the company's consumer and commercial products and services.

Microsoft was a founding member of the Anywhere Working Consortium, a body of UK organisations that aim to champion the benefits of Anywhere Working. The Consortium communicates best practices, examples and evidence so that flexible working is considered by any organisation employing 'information workers'.