Will remote working during the Olympics damage productivity?

Yesterday’s Daily Mail newspaper carried a two-page story headlined “Businesses pay the price as 1.5 million workers stay at home to stop London seizing up.” The essence of the story was that this would be a serious blow to the capital’s economy. It accused government departments and many big blue-chip firms of allowing staff to stay away from their offices to avoid travel chaos. The article estimated that half of employers were enabling staff to work flexibly. 3 in 10 were allowing requests by staff to work from home. HSBC said it was allowing 40% of its 8,500 staff in Canary Wharf to work from home.

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The Daily Mail found an economist and small business Federation spokesman who are concerned that this would have a negative effect on productivity.

This kind of concern is common in a move to remote and virtual working, and is largely groundless.

Managers (and newspapers) worry about control and productivity. Individuals value the flexibility of remote working gives them and are normally more productive. There are fewer distractions, fewer coffee breaks and chats with colleagues and it is easy to focus on substantial chunks of work without these distractions.

It depends of course on the nature of the job, if you have a job that requires regular face to face interaction with others then remote working may be inappropriate.

Working remotely does not automatically lead to lower productivity. I’ve worked from home for over 20 years and run a business where the majority of people travel regularly but work from home. Their productivity is significantly higher than that of individuals based in an office. They don’t have the wasted time, cost and environmental impact of commuting and appreciate the flexibility of deciding their own hours.

In fact one of the key challenges in working remotely and in virtual teams is in establishing boundaries. It is far too easy to work too many hours, or to check your e-mails too late at night.

There are significant cost and productivity advantages to companies encouraging remote working, not just for the Olympics but permanently. There are savings in travel costs, facilities and buildings, energy, parking spaces  and this way of working can create more flexible jobs that appeal to a wider range of people.

The key constraint in making this successful is management skill. Many managers, faced with people who work remotely, feel out of control. Inexperienced or unskilled managers struggle to trust people they can’t see and often respond by increasing control and micromanagement.

It is only by giving our managers, the skills to manage the remote relationship that we can solve this problem, not by assuming that individuals who are working remotely will shirk their responsibilities.

Let’s hope that the organizations that have good experience with remote and virtual working during the Olympics are encouraged to use it more widely. Individuals, companies, the transport infrastructure and the environment could all benefit.

Why not….?

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