Remote Working

This is the sixth in a series of articles produced for the Future of Work Hub by Lewis Silkin LLP looking at remote working.

Over recent years, technological developments such as e-mail, high-speed broadband, mobile devices and document-sharing platforms have made it possible to do certain jobs remotely that would previously have to be performed in an office. Governments across the world, in order to support increased labour participation and productivity, have facilitated opportunities for remote working by implementing legislation allowing greater flexibility.

Soaring house prices in many big cities, combined with commuting costs, have left many employers finding it difficult to attract and retain talent locally. This has prompted some businesses to reassess where and how work can best be performed, with remote working - whether from home or otherwise - offering a strategic solution for some job roles. 

Evidence shows that remote working presents various benefits to employees and employers, such as reducing the costs and environmental impact of commuting, producing higher rates of job satisfaction (thereby attracting and retaining staff) and demonstrating the trust that employers have in their staff. It can also increase productivity, reduce the cost of office space and help create a better work-life balance.

Despite all these advantages, the “working from anywhere” trend brings new challenges for businesses. Remote working can generate tensions and issues around “working time”, which are likely to be scrutinised by both government and the courts as the traditional workplace (which has been the model for most employment legislation) changes to embrace more flexible working patterns.

Businesses that are reluctant to embrace remote working tend to be those with concerns about effectively managing employees remotely, the potential costs of IT and technology support and the possible negative impact on trust, collaboration and team culture.  Remote workers can also face particular challenges in terms of managing their own work, putting them at greater risk of feeling isolated and removed from the rest of the business. In addition, some can be confronted with scepticism from office-based colleagues about whether they are genuinely “working from home” (notwithstanding studies showing that homeworkers are often more productive). A useful approach for employers is to conduct a thorough review of the technology they currently deploy in the business and seek to identify new devices/software that may help with some of the issues identified above.

Related to the IT requirements for facilitating remote working has been an increasing trend for employers to allow employees to use their own personal technologies in the workplace or when working from home. This is known as “Bring Your Own Device”.  By using their own device (e.g. smartphone, tablet or laptop), workers can connect to their employers’ network for professional purposes, whether at work, home or anywhere else. Notwithstanding the obvious cost-saving benefits to employers and potential improvement to engagement and productivity, BYOD does bring some associated risks for businesses, such as possible data protection breaches, confidential information leaks, loss of control, and issues regarding regulatory compliance and privacy.

Many of these issues can be overcome or mitigated by effective use of technology combined with robust policies relating to IT and data. Health and safety is also important, as employers should ensure they comply with their duty of care to remote workers in circumstances where they are less able to oversee their health and welfare (particularly their stress levels – see part 7 for further discussion).

Unstructured and informal approaches to remote working requests may expose businesses to allegations or claims of discrimination. Employers should implement a consistent, transparent and structured approach to remote working to mitigate such risks.  Managers should be provided with appropriate training on how to manage people remotely and contractual terms should be reviewed to consider what changes are needed.

FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS

There will inevitably be further technological developments facilitating remote working, resulting in a steady increase in opportunities to work in this way. The growth of this practice will, of course, depend on employers’ willingness to move away from the traditional “9 to 5” in the office to a more flexible model. The nature of the employer’s business is likely to be decisive, with the technology sector probably continuing to lead the way in the shorter term. We can, however, increasingly expect to see more traditional businesses adopting flexible business models as they recognise the competitive advantages.

CHECKLIST

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Watch out for the next article in the series will look at the stress epidemic.  To read the introduction to the report which gives an overview of the impact of three megatrends - globalisation, technology and changing demographics - on the world of work, see the introduction to the series.

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