Thinking outside the cubicle

Nov 25 2004 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Remote working is becoming increasingly popular as technology improves and senior executives grasp its strategic, financial and productivity benefits.

A global survey of 254 senior executives by AT&T in co-operation with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has found that remote working is now seen as a key factor driving corporate success.

According to the survey, the last year has seen a strong swing in favour of more flexible working arrangements as companies overcome their concerns about remote working, and the technology to enable it is improves steadily.

Two-thirds of the executives surveyed said that some of their staff now regularly work from home. In 2003, this figure was just over half.

Remote working means that employees can expand their working day, operate more productively and in many respects lead healthier lives, the report says.

Employers, meanwhile, save on office overheads, are not limited to hiring those able to relocate to where they’re based and get better performance from their staff.

Remote working is also uppermost in most executives' minds when drawing up their technology strategies. Eight out of 10 said that giving remote workers full access to the corporate network is a "critical" or "important" objective.

The survey also reveals a huge increase in the take-up of broadband access in the home. Almost half – 46 per cent – of companies said that broadband was in the homes of half or more of their workforce, up from just over a quarter in 2003.

Maintaining regular communication between managers and remote staff emerges as central to the success of a remote working scheme. But far from undermining employee supervision, remote working can impose good management practices by requiring efficient monitoring of employee work targets.

Remote working is also good for the bottom line. The report calculates that in some cases, at least one-third of office space costs can be cut through remote working.

Sun Microsystems, for example, has converted 17,000 employees to its 'iWork' scheme for remote working and more than half its workforce now have no assigned office. Instead, they can reserve shared work places or work from home. Through iWork, Sun is cutting 30 per cent of its office space.

However the report adds that while these 'hard' benefits catch the eye of many senior executives, the soft benefits, such as increased productivity and the scope to employ staff who live out of commuting range, are trickier to measure but are too often overlooked.

Productivity gains associated with flexible working schemes can also be substantial. A recent study showed that two-thirds of remote workers in Europe had achieved higher productivity, and that absenteeism had been significantly reduced in some countries.

Nevertheless, as the report acknowledges, remote working poses unique challenges, not just in terms of the loss of face to face contact, but also in a perceived threat to company culture.

Remote working brings radical changes, it says, and corporations will need to look at ways to maintain corporate identity amongst remote workers.

Opinions also remain polarised around what types of jobs can best be carried out remotely. Almost two-thirds of the executives surveyed thought that sales functions are best suited to remote working. Nearly half respondents pointed to customer service functions and four out of ten to research and marketing functions.

In contrast, only a quarter deemed remote working suitable for senior management, and just fewer than one in five were in favour of it for those performing financial functions.

However AT&T's Director of Teleworking, Joseph Roitz, believes executives are looking too narrowly: "Remote working applies across the board to knowledge workers," he says. "It's not job types that are important. It's about culture and technology."

The full report is available here