It always helps to be on the right side of history – and that applies to business as much as anything else in life.
So a smart business will detect which way the tide of affairs is flowing and swim with it. And, in advanced western economies, the trend is towards more and more people working from home, reverting to a norm that was only interrupted by the Industrial Revolution.
When I started Catalyst in 2005 as a finance and accounting recruitment agency, it seemed like a natural way to operate. I knew I would enjoy it, the people I wanted to work for me were all in favour and – most important – it gave us a valuable insight into much larger businesses that were also moving towards the same model.
Since then we’ve grown – not spectacularly but steadily – and we’ve expanded our areas of expertise to cover executive, technical and professional work in new areas such as operations, IT, sales, engineering, legal, IT, customer services, procurement and R&D.
At no point in our development and growth has the homeworking model been anything other than advantageous.
That’s not to deny that there are challenges, of which any business considering homeworking should be aware.
For one thing, there are clearly some businesses – such as high street retail or manufacturing – which need their premises, certainly for their core activities.
You have to pay more attention to communication and interaction with – and between - staff. The responsibility is on you to be proactive in finding new ways of replacing direct contact in offices. Fortunately, developments in digital technology are coming to our help here with video conferencing, instant messaging and various social networks.
As management, you’ll probably need to have more information and analysis than would be considered normal for a small business. In the traditional workplace, you can depend on what you see and hear, so you’ll have to put in place new ways to do this, to measure and share outcomes and productivity.
Ensure you keep up to speed with new technology. The development of the Cloud, for example, has been of major benefit to SMEs in general and to homeworkers in particular and those who embraced it earlier would have gained real advantage on their homeworking competitors.
The big consideration with homeworking, is that – by definition - you are bringing the worlds of home and work closer. You must make sure that you and your employees maintain a distinction between the two. On the one hand, you and they, must maintain standards of professionalism and a separate working space is important here. But, on the other hand, you must all guard against the proximity of `the office’ muscling in too much on family life.
Having said all that, I’m convinced that these possible hurdles are far outweighed by the advantages.
Plenty of research has demonstrated that homeworking brings greater productivity. Employees tend to be happier in the familiar and calm home environment. While the need to make working hours coincide with those of customers must always be a focus, employees welcome the ability to fit their work around domestic demands such as home deliveries, workmen, shopping, school runs and meal preparation.
Less time is lost to sickness – a bad cold, which could well deter someone from coming into work, may not prevent them from putting in the better part of a working day at home, where there is the added benefit that they are not going to infect their colleagues.
Apart from greater productivity and attendance, homeworking has also been shown, time and time again, to lead to improved staff retention. It has proved to be a particularly popular option with women who have taken time off to have children and need flexibility in balancing the demands of resuming their career with raising a young family. An employer who can offer these workers that flexibility through the ability to work from home stands a far greater chance of retaining experienced and talented individuals.
Working from home means no commuting. The time savings here for the employee can be huge, as can their travel expenses, which is a cost free incentive the employer can offer beyond salary. The business will not be disrupted by public transport strikes, road works or leaves on the line.
One of the huge benefits of homeworking for the employer is, of course, the saving of rent, rates, maintenance, heating and lighting and all the other expenses that go with occupying property.
But I would strongly advise anyone considering the homeworking model to view it primarily as much more than a cost saving exercise. You need to take a holistic view as to whether it will benefit your business, in terms of cost – yes, of course – but also productivity, customer service and staff satisfaction and loyalty. Also, you might choose to invest cash saved on property into staff technology, promotion and other areas.
The advantages are so clear and so significant that it is no wonder that homeworking is gaining in popularity. It has been estimated that more than 50 million employees in Europe spend at least part of their working week working remotely and that more than 40% of UK businesses are now home-based. Curiously, at this time of pending UK EU Referendum, there’s perhaps a need for a more joined-up, better informed European approach.
Beyond above, I’m convinced that this is a trend that’s likely to continue, especially because it’s something that young people increasingly expect. They have grown up with digital technology and are fully aware of its capabilities, while some of us are still adapting to the basics. They know that it is possible to work remotely efficiently and productively and that they can communicate effectively before needing to meet face-to-face.
It’s a truism that any business’s greatest asset is its employees and skilled staff are challenging to find. With homeworking recruitment can reach beyond your own region – or even nation. Catalyst is based in Newcastle, but I have had one employee based in Spain and now look like having another in New Zealand.
Take it from me – the future’s coming home.