Is flexible / remote working good for business?

This debate has recently become a hot topic after Yahoo’s chief executive officer (CEO) Marissa Mayer announced a ban of employees working from home.

Since the global downturn began many companies opted to increase the use of flexible or remote working.  There were a range of drivers.  First, given the inability to offer increases in compensation and benefit, flexible working has been used as an ‘employer of choice’ strategy.  Second, it became a means to realise cost savings by lowering the amount of office space occupied.  Thirdly, such space reduction has also endorsed corporate social responsibility and environmental credentials.

So will Yahoo’s example signal a turning tide?    Overall, is flexible / remote working a good idea for business or not?  These are pros and cons to the debate, as I see them:

The benefits of flexible / remote working:

  • Improves employee well-being, motivation and performance
  • Reduces absence levels
  • Retention: helps businesses keep parents on board, skilled and experienced staff etc
  • Increases efficiency: by reducing office distractions and empowering employees to manage their time more effectively
  • Cost saving: from a business perspective, savings can be made in terms of electricity and the general space needed for having an extra employee in the office. From an employee viewpoint, costs on the commute and possibly child care can be significantly less.

Potential downsides of flexible / remote working:

  • Trust and accountability: some companies remain concerned that employees can take advantage of this arrangement.
  • Security: working on remote computers can be a potential security threat for firms, as more data is passed around outside their control.
  • Fear of disrupting normal flow of business
  • Team spirit: flexible working suits individuals, but doesn’t always work for the team. If staff are away from the office more than they are in, it can be much harder to create a good team atmosphere.

Interestingly, age can also have a big impact on expectations, with research suggesting that Generation X and baby boomers have very different expectations to Generation Y when it comes to work. Generation Y expectations are much higher, they not only want to work in a location of their choosing but usually also work at the time they want.  They do not wish to be constrained by the traditional 9-5 and they also favour modern, high-quality office space. Why does that matter? Well, if they want to attract the best and retain the best, employers will need to think how they can adapt or accept that some of the best of Generation Y will not be interested in the careers they are offering.

Taking the above factors into consideration, I believe Yahoo may be missing a trick in suggesting a total ban. From what I have seen and read, flexible / remote working can be hugely beneficial to both companies and employees. What seems critical to me is whether a reasonable balance can be struck between home-working time versus office time. I think it allows motivated employees the possibility of a quiet and concentrated time (depending on home circumstances!) to produce high-quality work efficiently and companies stand to gain through retention of talent, reduced operating costs and higher productivity.

Of course it is important not to lose human connections between colleagues and workers.  So, for me, it’s all about getting the balance right. My view would be that staff expect a reasonable amount of flexibility from employers and that Yahoo’s new directive is somewhat outmoded.