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It's Snow Joke - Recent Weather Highlights Need for More Flexible Working Practices

Posted: 30/01/2013 23:00

The recent Arctic snap and snowfall may have been good news for school kids, plumbers and the energy industry but it's more misery for the rest of us battling to make it into workplaces on clogged, dangerous roads or waiting, more in hope than expectation, for trains, tubes and buses.

With up to one in three UK workers unable to make it to the office in last week's heavy snow, many must have had pause for reflection and asked themselves whether this is the only way to work. Now, with the snow melting and a proportion of the country under the threat of flooding, the answer is staring us in the face more starkly than ever before: treat 'work' as something we do rather than somewhere to go.

The average commuter spends an inordinate amount of time commuting. In London, it adds up to five weeks per year, according to a TUC analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics. That's 277 hours going in and out of the metropolis every year. Even the fastest UK commutes constitute something of a schlep with Welsh and Northern Irish commuters spending 166 hours and 164 hours respectively. We're not alone in having to commute of course but the RAC has suggested Brits travel further to work and spend longer doing so than any of their European counterparts.

It's not just journey distance that affects us, however - the impact long commutes and disruptions to travel have on productivity is huge. Research conducted by the RSA suggests last Friday's snowfall could have cost the UK economy half a billion pounds, while the Office for National Statistics said that the heavy snowfall witnessed back in December 2010 caused the UK economy to contract by 0.5 per cent.

While the option to work remotely may not have been suitable for all of those stranded - such as construction workers or retail staff who do need to be at their place of work in order to be productive - a huge number of those stuck in the snow could have continued to work if the right tools and policies had been in place.

So why isn't this the case? To a large extent the answer is cultural. The myth that has long been perpetuated says that not being at a workplace somehow equates to reduced productivity. It's so widespread that it has led to absurdities like 'presenteeism', defined by Ruth Simpson in the British Journal of Management as the "need to demonstrate visible commitment" although others define it as showing up for work even when ill - in many ways, an equally inane concept.

The latter form of presenteeism can carry a high price. A 2012 report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that sick days were falling as workers showed up for fear of losing their jobs with three in 10 companies reporting an increase in people going into work ill. And a 2010 report published by think-tank The Work Foundation found that presenteeism can cost 1.5 times more than sickness because of reduced productivity and the likelihood of causing longer, more series absences from work.

There are times when being together with colleagues is essential, of course. Some collaborative processes, brainstorming and team meetings thrive on intimate, visceral interactions. But for many tasks, breaking the shackles of desk working can itself be highly productive.

Experts like Scott Edinger of Edinger Consulting Group, writing in the Harvard Review in 2012, suggest proximity can lead to complacency and, rather than enabling useful interactions, most of us will know the phenomenon of workers who will email rather than ask a question of a colleague sitting a few desks away. By contrast, not being physically present in a workplace will often make people strive to stay in contact and to check on people and the status of projects, making better use of phone calls, conferencing, messaging and other tools to work optimally with colleagues. Remote workers can also find the time and space to complete projects requiring focused concentration and when they do meet colleagues and others they will tend to make better use of their time, removing distractions to drill down on key information and get tasks completed.

Companies that embrace Anywhere Working and give staff the freedom to work from other locations, also reap benefits, finding it easier to recruit and saving money on office costs.

Of course, remote working is no panacea. Certain personality types want the structure and routine of office working and many tasks require physical presence. But businesses that are open to multiple ways of working will generally run better... and are less likely to be disrupted by a snowy, or even a rainy, day.

Scott Dodds is the General Manager of Marketing & Operations for Microsoft UK. Microsoft was a founding member of the Anywhere Working Consortium whose mission is to champion the benefits of Anywhere Working and communicate best practices, examples and evidence so that it is considered by any organisation employing 'information workers'.

 

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