Is working from home bad for business?

roderick rennison

Working from home has been part of the employment structure in a number of firms for many years. For some people it is now a firmly established way of life. The impact can certainly be seen, at least where I commute into London. On Fridays, for example, the station car park is not as full as it is for the remaining days of the week and I can get a seat on the train.

However, in my work with firms, I have come to realise working from home policies are often ad hoc. They are not documented, nor are they applied consistently across the business.

More importantly, in some cases, little or no effort is made to measure productivity. So much so that working from home is often tantamount to additional holiday.

Seeing as that is far from the intention of such policies, it is important to determine whether working from home is really of benefit to the business and to take the right steps to monitor its use.

There are a number of golden rules to consider depending on whether working from home is to be part of an employee’s regular week or whether it is just to address short-term requirements stemming from the business or the employee.

Where working from home is to be part of an employee’s working week, the rules are as follows:

1: There should be a clear business case for working from home

2: The purpose/rationale should be clearly set out in writing

3: The person should be accessible via both email and phone throughout the day(s) in question unless otherwise agreed

4: Depending on the level of employee, it may be reasonable to ask to see outputs in the form of completed work/assignments

5: Unless it is necessary or desirable to write it into an employee’s contract as being permanent, it is something that should be capable of withdrawal at any time to suit the needs of the business.

Where there is a temporary need for the employee to work from home – for example, to deal with rail strikes – most of the same rules apply. In addition, there needs to be a clear process for sanction in advance by the employee’s line manager. The following points should be considered before any agreement is reached:

  • Is the line manager satisfied that the employee is capable of working independently, using their own initiative?
  • Is their home set up appropriately to enable them to work in a quiet area away from noise?
  • Will documents be capable of being stored securely?
  • How will contact with the office be maintained on the day(s) concerned?
  • How will the employee comply with health and safety regulations?
  • Should there be a process for them to come into the office to cover for sick colleagues?

There is a popular phrase used in many management effectiveness books: what gets measured gets done. When agreeing on working from home policies, it is important to set clear goals and objectives at the outset. Obtaining regular reports is equally crucial.

While it may be unpopular to do so, it is important to review the policy generally and the arrangements for individual employees in particular at agreed periodic intervals.

With this in mind, care is needed in drafting employee contracts and professional advice should be taken to ensure the legal aspects are appropriately dealt with.

The flexibility that working from home can bring is an important aspect to consider. It may even be an aid to recruitment for some roles. But businesses must be capable of effective control and monitoring if it is to work in their favour, as well as for employees.

Roderic Rennison is director of The Ideas Lab