Home working - Is the future flexible?

working from home - john hill

Mobile professionals, remote workers, telecommuters, location independent professionals – call them what you will, employees working from home is an increasing occurrence.

It is estimated that 14% of employees in the UK are remote workers whilst in the US it is nearly double this amount at 24%. The Office of National Statistics figures show that the number of home workers increased from 1.3 million in 1998 to more than 4 million in 2014. Over one third of these home workers are employees whilst the others are either self employed or work in the family business. This figure is predicted to increase in future with a recent survey by Virgin Media Business predicting that 60% of employees will regularly work from home by 2022.

There are significant advantages to remote working but there are also many disadvantages:

Advantages:

  • Savings to office space and cost
  • Access to a wider pool of workers. This can be in terms of geographic location or access to those who need to fit work around children or other responsibilities and those with disabilities who may prefer to work at home
  • Better employee retention with employees able to get a better work/ life balance and achieve better job satisfaction
  • Reduced stress and sickness levels
  • Ability to locate staff strategically nearer clients
  • Possible increased productivity
  • Savings in costs and time for reduced commuting with the associated environmental benefits

Disadvantages:

  • Difficulty in managing remote workers and monitoring performance
  • Increased training and telecommunications costs
  • Increase costs in ensuring health and safety is maintained in the work environment (which is now at the employee’s home)
  • Increased vulnerability to telecommunication problems
  • Increased data and information security risks
  • Difficulties in maintaining skill levels and transferring skills and knowledge
  • Loss of team cohesion/ team spirit
  • Increased risk of sense of isolation

The advances in remote working technology has no doubt contributed to this increase. However, given the significant advantages one may be surprised that the shift towards home working is not more dramatic. One of the main obstacles appears to be trust; trusting that employees will work effectively and efficiently at home rather than simply catching up on the latest episode of Eastenders or allowing household chores and personal errands to interrupt work.

This lack of trust may be more indicative of a lack of knowledge, skills or tools for managing home workers. Both managers and employees need to be educated and trained. The benefits and objectives of flexible working need to be communicated to employers, manager and employees and everybody must be aware of the organisation’s policies. Employees and managers should be aware of what is expected and how this will be evaluated.

By regularly reviewing home working arrangements you can assess what works and what doesn’t so that best practice can be emulated throughout the organisation.

Of course, flexible working doesn’t lend itself to all jobs. However, tax and accountancy, like many other professional services, is particularly suited to home working. With the advent of document cabinets and software available in the Cloud and Virtual Private Networks or other interfaces available between home workstations and the employer’s servers, it is as easy to work on a client’s tax or accounts affairs at home as it is in the organisation’s office.

However, just as every job doesn’t suit home working arrangements, not every person does either. Working from home requires a change in mindset. I know of home workers who get dressed in their ‘office clothes’ before they start their work at home to help their mind switch from ‘at home’ to ‘at work’ mode. Others will go into their home ‘office’ at 9am, shut the door and will not come out until 5pm for any reason (except lunch and coffee). The skills you need to be a home worker include:

  • Time management and discipline
  • Self motivation
  • Self sufficiency
  • Good telecommunications and IT knowledge

It is generally considered that flexible working on a part-time basis is most beneficial. This ensures that many of the disadvantages are mitigated. By going into the organisation’s office a couple of days each week, teams can maintain cohesion; skills can be upgraded and transferred and personal relationships can be strengthened. The advantages of saving office space can be maintained by desk sharing or hot-desking.

Of course, if you do offer home working to one employee, you are setting a precedent that others may wish to follow, so you need to fully evaluate how home working fits your business needs.

Employers should be aware that they are now legally required to seriously consider requests for flexible working arrangements, including the ability to work from home for people who have children under 17 or disabled children under 18 or other dependents. Bearing this in mind, employers may want to give priority for home working arrangements to the people in these groups. 
With regards to tax relief, home workers with a voluntary home working arrangement may receive employer contributions towards business expenses of working from home (telephone, extra heat and light). Home workers may claim the cost of expenses up to the value of £4 per week without any receipts. In excess of this amount, the employee needs to provide receipts to obtain tax relief for the expenses. If the amount is less than £4 or you have receipts for the full amount if over £4, the employee does not have to pay tax or national insurance on this amount. If the employer does not contribute towards the home worker’s expenses and the employee works at home voluntarily, they cannot claim any expenses at all.

With Cloud technology still advancing, making remote working ever easier and the benefits of saving office space and reduced commuting time and costs, it may be time for even the staunchest opponent of remote working to re-evaluate flexible working arrangements.