Learning to manage remote workers effectively


by Donna Gardiner

As of last month, all employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service will have the right to make a request to their employer for flexible working under new Flexible Working Regulations.  Previously, the right to request flexible working was restricted to only those with children and certain carers.

So what do the new regulations mean for employers and managers?  On receipt of a request, the employer is now under a duty to consider the request in a “reasonable manner” and a decision must be made within three months. If the request is rejected, it must be for one of a number of specified business reasons – for example, the burden of additional costs, a detrimental impact on quality or an inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff.

What impact are these changes likely to have on organisations? At present, flexible working is already widespread and increasing numbers of people are adopting flexible forms of working year on year.  For example, a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) conducted in 2012 found that nearly all employers (96%) offered some form of flexible working, with part-time working being the most common (88%), followed by working from home on a regular basis (54%).  Indeed, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that in the period January – March 2014, 13.9% of employed people in the UK reported spending the majority of their time working from home, a 2.8 percentage point increase since 1998. In addition, there are also those who work flexibly on a more informal or lesser scale.

The management of increasing numbers of employees with flexible working arrangements, particularly remote working, does pose specific challenges for line managers on a day-to-day basis.  For example, a recent ACAS study reported that that the greatest barrier to homeworking success was management trust, and the traditional managerial attitude that employees need to be seen to be considered productive.

It concluded that in order to manage flexible working effectively, “managers must be willing and able to relinquish traditional notions of how best to manage performance – usually based on direct supervision – and adopt new ways of motivating and monitoring their staff”.  For example, it suggested changing from behaviour-based (assessing performance based on employee actions) to output-based monitoring strategies.

There are a number of other potential challenges associated with homeworking, including:

  • Lack of ‘face-time’ and/or visibility of achievement
  • Loss of team dynamics
  • Potential for the home worker to feel alienated from other staff
  • Potential for the home worker to be unable to ‘switch off’
  • Data/IT security concerns

However, it is generally agreed that such challenges can be overcome through adopting appropriate management and communication strategies.  In a recent article on managing remote teams, Training Journal suggests that great leaders should learn to use effective questioning techniques and active listening skills to “read between the lines virtually” in order to spot potential or existing problems with remote workers. It also suggests utilising technology effectively to build links between teams, for example, by creating virtual workspaces rather than long email conversation threads between numerous team members.

Despite these disadvantages, recent CIPD research concluded that “the benefits of flexible working outweigh the disadvantages”.  Indeed, the reported advantages of homeworking are numerous.  For example, the benefits reported by recent case studies of the implementation of flexible working in local councils in Aberdeenshire, Fife, Camden and Wokingham include:

  • Increased performance – both individual and team
  • Improvements to overall service delivery
  • Improved job attitudes, including increased job satisfaction, engagement and commitment
  • Better work-life balance
  • Lower levels of work-related stress
  • Reduced commuting – time and money savings, carbon savings
  • Reduced office energy consumption and rental costs
  • Improved employer profile/reputation, thus helping the organisation to attract and retain talent

Research conducted by Jobsite prior to today’s expansion of the right to request flexible working, suggests that 66 per cent of people would request flexible working given the opportunity to do so. Ensuring that line managers are equipped with the skills to manage such working patterns effectively is crucial to avoid and/or mitigate potential problems, and to maximise the potential gains for both employer and employee.

For more research and best practice on effectively managing flexible working arrangements, please see the following resources (please note you may need to be member):

One thought on “Learning to manage remote workers effectively

  1. Pingback: Supercommuting: is it worth it? | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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