Is it the end of the road for the office?

Homeworking. It was becoming increasingly popular. Then it was suddenly forced upon millions more people. We all know why.

But how has the new move to compulsory homeworking impacted businesses and its employees? Will we all rush back to the office with beaming smiles when ‘normality’ is resumed? Or are businesses going to embrace change? Is this an opportunity to bring forward the future of working? With 44 percent of people saying they’d like to continue working at home at least part of the time after the lockdown is lifted, employers can’t afford to ignore the issue. 

In this paper, we look at the rise in homeworking and its many benefits. As well as the important things you need to consider if you’re an employer, before you drop the office front door key down the nearest drain. 

The growth in homeworking – prior to lockdown. 

Understandably, some jobs can’t be done from home. But many can. Especially traditional office-based roles. 

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there’s been a steady rise in the percentage of people in employment who ‘mainly’ work from home. In 2015 it was 4.3%. By the end of 2019 this increased to 5.1% – 1.7 million people. Although 4.0 million people in 2019 reported working from home ‘at some point’. 

There are a number of reasons for this increase. Advancements in technology is one of them. From the greater mobility of hardware, to software applications like video conferencing. And there’s been a greater willingness from employers to be more flexible. 

Another biggy – a better work-life balance. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), whose objective is to ‘make working life better for everyone in Britain’, surveyed their own employees and found: “Higher performance, job satisfaction and motivation from partial homeworkers and mobile workers. They also report less stress than office staff.”

Avoiding the dreaded commute certainly helps with this. No more crawling along in an endless line of traffic. Or squeezing onto trains so crowded you can’t even lift your arm to drink your overpriced coffee. Not to mention the money you save. But employees aren’t the only ones quids-in from homeworking.

There are more reasons to shrink your office than saving money. Sort of.   

Cutting down on the number of employees that use the office allows you to operate from a smaller unit, which will understandably lower your rent. This then leads to further savings on business rates, utility bills, furnishings and more. And don’t forget your tea and coffee bill. 

But it’s not all about the money. Many businesses that encourage homeworking see an increase in productivity. And loyalty. Employees have fewer interruptions compared to being in the office and value the freedom given to them by their boss. Although, you could argue in the end, there’s still a financial incentive for doing this.   

Homeworking also lets you cast your recruitment net a lot further in the talent pool, as where your employees live is less of an issue. Giving you the pick of the bunch. And as your reputation grows for being a flexible employer, they’ll come knocking on your door. If you still have one. 

It doesn’t stop there. Having fewer employees commuting to your office is better for the planet. And productivity. With less working hours lost to: ‘the traffic was a nightmare’ or ‘leaves on the line again’. 

So, why only a gradual increase in homeworking over the last decade? Until 2020. 

There are clearly many benefits to homeworking. For businesses and employees. And potentially going even further by closing the office – for good. Why the resistance then?  

Trust. It lies heavy on some employers’ minds. They fear employees will sit at home watching Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby in the morning, then fire off the odd email in the afternoon to show willing. But those that take the homeworking leap often report increases in productivity as previously mentioned.

Other employers are concerned their company culture will be lost. Undoubtedly it won’t be exactly the same if you shut the office, but it’s still possible to maintain a culture. You can arrange regular events and face-to-face catch-ups (post lockdown) to help reinforce brand values and strengthen internal relationships. Even during lockdown, businesses are uniting their teams, boosting morale and having fun over video calls. It’s possible – it just needs a fresh approach to make it work.

There are other considerations too. You can’t just send out shiny, new laptops to everyone and forget it. There are laws to follow and systems and policies that should be put in place to ensure your transition to homeworking, be it temporary, permanent or partial, is successful.  

Safety first.

Employers are responsible for the health and safety of their employees. Including those that work from home.

Ideally, a physical health and safety risk assessment would be carried out at each employee’s home. Although, that’s not really practical during the current circumstances. But you can still do a digital or verbal assessment to check employees have everything they need to work safely.  

Having the right technology and equipment. 

To be productive when working from home, you need the right technology and equipment. And it’s the employer’s responsibility to provide it. 

The initial outlay for this might be expensive. You’re unlikely to be able to pick up an employee’s desk and what’s on it and drop it off at their home. They might need extra things like their own printer, high-speed broadband installed, a shredder for confidential documents and more. But in the long-run, the savings made by having a smaller (or no) office, are likely to outweigh these upfront costs.  

There are ongoing equipment needs too. Things you’d have to pay for at the office, such as printer cartridges, paper and stationery. Organising how these are collected or delivered should be factored in too. 

Data standards, security and storage. 

As an employer, you’ll have processes and policies in place about information management and data protection (GDPR). These should be adhered to, whether an employee works in your office or at home.

Like us, your company might even be compliant to ISO standards, such as ISO 2700 – the Information Security Standard. This means you have to specify requirements for establishing, implementing, maintaining and continually improving an information security management system. If your employees start homeworking, and you want to remain compliant, you’ll need to reassess these requirements. 

You’ll also need to look into data storage. Especially if you currently use servers in your office and are planning on closing it. Moving them to your downstairs bathroom isn’t going to work.

A cloud solution will give you the flexibility you need. But it’s worth speaking to an expert, so they can tailor it to your business and budget. They’ll also be able to advise you on data security and back-up options. 

Don’t forget the security of your hardware and software either. Cyberthreats are becoming more sophisticated every day. And the risk assessment for your employees’ home/mobile setups will differ from your predominantly centralised office setup. 

Providing IT support.

If you’re homeworking and your computer freezes, it’s not really practical for John in IT to drive 37 miles to potentially just turn it on and off again. Running effective IT support for homeworkers involves having a different system in place. 

Remote IT support isn’t new. And you might already use it for your office computers and servers. If you do, contact your supplier to make them aware of your plans and update your contract accordingly. If you don’t use remote IT support, can your in-house IT person/team deliver it or do you need to outsource it?  

Providing emotional support.

Some people will love homeworking. Others will find it challenging. No longer being surrounded by colleagues. New ways of working. A change in routine. Having to self-motivate. All of which can affect a person’s mental wellbeing. 

It’s important for managers to regularly keep in touch with employees and provide extra support where needed.

Performance reviews, career progression and training should still be maintained too, with structured processes so they aren’t forgotten about.

According to ACAS, there are four key ingredients for managing productive homeworking:

  1. Building trust between staff who work from home and their manager.
  2. Agreeing how work performance will be supervised and measured. 
  3. Communicating effectively. 
  4. Training.

That’s not all folks.

Does your business insurance cover equipment being used at home by an employee? What’s your company policy towards helping homeworkers with childcare? This paper doesn’t cover everything. Fortunately, ACAS pretty much do in this guide to homeworking for employers and employees. It was written before ‘it’ happened, so certain things like ‘home visit risk assessments’ aren’t practical right now, but there’s plenty of advice that is. 

What does the future of work look like for you? 

It’s less than three months since lockdown was enforced and we already know of a business that’s downsizing its office. And another that’s ditched theirs for good. Everyone there will continue homeworking full-time – regardless of what happens with coronavirus in the future.

A bold decision? Possibly. But businesses that adapt, respond quickly and embrace change are often successful. Especially if they do it with careful planning, robust systems and solid policies in place. 

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of working.