By Stephen De Kalb
Mobile workforce, remote workers, telecommuters, digital nomads - whatever term you use, working from anywhere but the office is a movement that’s grown in popularity ever since it was introduced in Germany in 1967 to reduce the problems associated with, perhaps surprisingly given it was 50 years ago, commuting to work.
Not that long ago, in 2009, flexible work arrangements like remote working became enshrined in Australian law with the Fair Work Act, allowing many employees to find that happy balance between paid work and personal life and giving their employers new opportunities to improve the productivity and efficiency of their organisations.
So how’s all that working out for HR?
The folks stuck in the middle of the remote workforce revolution are in the HR department.
On the one hand, there’s a great business case HR can make for having a modern mobile workforce. Considerable money can be saved if there’s less need for office space, utilities, parking, operational expenses and materials, technology and, increasingly, fitness, wellbeing and childcare facilities.
Then, of course, there’s the increased productivity reported by more than two-thirds of employers with telecommuting programs according to US firm Tele-Research Network, together with higher morale and job satisfaction and lower employee stress, absenteeism and turnover.
Employees, on the other hand, like telecommuting because of the freedom to work from anywhere - kitchen, bed, bath, beach, wherever - and often at a time that suits them. They also save money and time they once spent getting to and from work. But the employee advantage that trumps them all has become a hallmark term of the modern workplace: a greater sense of work/life balance.
Added to these and other nice things that remote employees tell their friends and associates about their employer, HR also benefits by having an incentive to attract new talent, saving yet more money. According to PGi, a leading provider of collaboration software and services to Fortune 100 organisations, 80 percent of employees say the option to work remotely is an important job perk.
And at the end of the day, all these advantages add up to a better bottom line for organisations. And they don’t do a company’s reputation or brand image any harm either.
So far so good for HR departments.
What could go wrong?
Managing employees who work away from the office presents HR with unique challenges, and the one that keeps senior leaders awake at night is how best to communicate with employees who aren’t at their desks. When managers are not face-to-face with employees every day, HR (and their IT teams) need tools once considered “nice to haves” that suddenly become essential, like instant messaging and video chat, to make interactive work possible. Strong cloud-based workflow systems are also a must as are intranets, knowledge management systems, social software and a baffling range of emerging, often times expensive, collaborative tools and communication solutions.
Next, driving increased productivity from remote workers sounds attractive enough - but how does HR track it? How much work do telecommuters actually complete each day, and how well do they do it if there’s no manager looking over their shoulder? Here the answer is well-written, accessible policies, procedures and guidelines that workers understand, as well as systems that capture actions as metrics that the business can understand.
And don’t forget the training - from how to maximise the use new collaboration and communication systems to time management skills - that even savvy, self-motivated telecommuters will require.
Now, for challenges with the “soft stuff” that HR has to worry about, like employee trust.
When managers cannot lay eyes on employees it can be difficult to know if they’re doing what they’re paid to do. Trust is earned over time, but time is a precious commodity in any workplace. That’s why managing a successful flexible work arrangement ultimately comes down to having effective managers who remote workers and virtual teams can trust to keep everyone on track, solve problems and remove workflow (or workmate) obstacles. Once again the need to develop leaders with the right skills is one of the HR department's most pressing commercial imperatives.
The importance of a strong, unified organisational culture
While remote workers may love job flexibility, HR should never assume that they also like not being part of a physical team. They’re social animals after all, whether they’re full time, part time, virtual, whatever, so HR neglects the cultural aspect of the modern mobile workforce at their peril. Instead, HR must go the extra mile to have remote employees in the office regularly, ensure conference calls and in-person meetings are regularly scheduled, and keep everyone connected virtually. It is HR’s responsibility to help organisations establish these sorts of practices, processes, technologies and, critically, ongoing communication between remote workers and managers.
And we’re not done yet. The HR department must identify the roles, and individuals, not conducive to remote working arrangements. It needs to be cognisant of workplace health and safety, security and compliance. It must be careful that teamwork and knowledge sharing doesn’t break down, and have remedies in place if it does.
Then there’s the elephant in the room - the many damaging, even tragic things that can happen to employees and their families when the lines between work and personal life blur.
I don’t want to make the dream of having an effective, motivated remote workforce sound all too hard. After all, lots of organisations here and overseas are living that dream. Getting it right is well worth it, starting with sky-high employee morale and ending with strong, sustainable business growth.
And in between, an HR team that can make it happen.
If your organisation needs help with new systems training, documenting policies and procedures or professional development whether time management or leadership skills, TP3 can help. Check out the industry’s widest portfolio of learning services and solutions at www.TP3.com.au.