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Remote working: HR friend or foe?

The landscape in which we work has changed dramatically over recent years, with technology a key driver in the ‘social change’ we see within the workplace with the growth of remote and flexible working. With comment from Matt Wheeler, product and marketing director at time and workforce management expert Amano

HR teams are often in the front line of making new work patterns meet not just the needs of the business (are our staff working productively or costing us money?) but also ensuring the complexities of health and safety, employment law, IT and data security and employer responsibility are satisfied. So how should we manage our workforce when it is, at least in part, ‘out of sight’? Matt Wheeler, product and marketing director at time and workforce management expert Amano UK, argues that the key to ensuring the new working landscape is fertile ground on which to reap business success, rests with two factors; transparency (knowledge is power, so every HR manager must have accurate data at their fingertips) and competitive advantage (do these new ways of working present opportunities to be ‘better’ at what we do?). But first, let’s just be clear about the different reasons our employees may no longer be ‘present’ while at work.

Choice or necessity?
Recent research* claims remote working has increased by as much as 68 percent since 2010, with 71 percent of 45,000 businesses surveyed citing flexibility and cost-savings as the main reasons for enabling employees to work from home or away from a central office. However, for some businesses remote working is much more than an exercise in reducing overheads and has become absolutely essential to providing the best service possible for customers. Working across multiple sites or from client sites isn’t unusual and in some industries and professions, it’s integral to the job, such as field engineers, contract cleaners or healthcare practitioners.

For roving sales forces, remote or ‘mobile’ working is crucial to the success of a commercial business. In fact, with advances in smart phones, laptops and WiFi it’s become even easier for them to remain out selling ‘on the road’ for longer periods of time – much to the benefit of the business. So if remote working is primarily about ‘where’ the work is undertaken, flexible working is often about ‘when’ that work takes place. Businesses today employ a whole host of different flexible working practices such as varying shift patterns, compressed hours, flexitime, part-time hours and also remote working.

Anyone can ask their employer for flexible working arrangements, but the law entitles some employees with the statutory right to request a flexible working pattern – currently this only applies to those with children under 17, disabled children under 18 or those who care for a partner or relative. In some cases, adopting a range of different shift patterns, alternative or seasonal working hours can help the business to run more effectively and efficiently. But for others, these choices simply seem like hurdles making planning more complex.

The success of many such flexible working arrangements begins with effective scheduling or rostering, where the main management issue is to ensure the correct resource is in place at all times in order for the business to function. But there are also some great tools at the HR Manager’s disposal to make this planning for remote or flexible workers less of a headache. Which brings us back to the two key factors for success; the first involves knowing exactly how your resources are being deployed no matter when, or where, your staff are working.

Out of sight, not out of mind
Despite the varying business needs, there are some common practicalities that HR professionals must address if remote working is to be effective. Firstly, there is the question of trust. ‘Working from home’ is still sometimes regarded with the suspicion that an employee will be much less productive at home than in the office. For home-working to be effective, managers need to know where people are and what times they are working. And for the person diligently working from home, it’s reassuring to be just as ‘visible’ as their colleagues back in the office. Clearly, this requires some sensitivity to avoid a ‘Big Brother’ culture in which employees feel they are being watched, but this is one particular aspect where technology can help.

Businesses can now deploy software with self-service applications that give more responsibility to the employee but enable managers to keep control and even manage more effectively. Employee self-service is a growing trend and can help remote workers to manage their own time by effectively ‘clocking in and out’ remotely, via online or using telephone systems that also provide location tracking. The phone system is ideal for those who don’t need a computer to do their job, such as care providers or cleaners; they can simply ‘dial in’ when they arrive and leave each client. In addition, web-based technology can allow employees to access information wherever they are, so instant access to data is always available. These tools can also empower staff to self-manage other tasks, such as organising their annual leave in line with other members of their team.

Ultimately, this de-centralisation enables managers to free up time for more valuable tasks by delegating responsibility for certain activities to team leaders and employees, while employees also feel empowered to make their own decisions. Yet the business still maintains an element of control, by using notification services via email or text which inform managers of any anomalies, such as if an employee doesn’t turn up for work, or is late. Managers are informed immediately so they can make sure the team, and business at large, still functions and performs effectively. The right technology then, can aid ‘transparency’ and make it much easier for the HR team – and their colleagues in payroll – to manage remote working. For example, S.H.L Refractories Ltd, an Amano customer that specialises in producing refractory materials able to withstand extreme heat, employs 60 highly experienced managers, engineers, supervisors and tradesmen. Although much of their work is managed at the firm’s Worksop base, they need to send out teams to work on installations at client sites all over the UK. It was while they were attempting to transfer clocking data from one of their client contract sites in Rotherham to their base in Worksop, that the inadequacy of their time and attendance system became evident. The clocking terminal was connected via modem, which not only delayed the process, but also proved unreliable.

To solve the problem the firm invested in more advanced technology that would enable simple and flexible time management. They installed the latest version of Astrow Suite combined with new clocking in terminals with a reliable dial-up remote connection. This proved to be perfect for managing its resources – wherever staff are located – and planning ahead for complex installation jobs. This is where technology can be used as an ‘enabler’, but it is no substitute for good business management. On its own, it also won’t help HR teams identify which staff are able to work effectively and efficiently when they are away from the central office. With home workers for example, some HR departments have put in place specific guidelines, by building in regular assessments to ensure individual productivity and agreeing fixed times when home workers must come in and meet with the rest of the team. HR managers also need to feel confident about the environment in which employees are working when they’re not in the office, including addressing concerns about the safety of allowing access to sensitive business information on home computers.

If all is well, then businesses can rely on technology to help provide remote workers with all the tools they need to set up their own ‘virtual office’, while still enabling the business to set the parameters using applications such as access control. Most importantly though, technology helps to ensure that remote workers no longer feel isolated by maintaining open communication with colleagues, not just via phone or email, but through intranet systems, online business communities and other online business tools.

Creating competitive advantage
So if technology can help us to manage flexible and remote workforces more efficiently, surely that lays the way clear for us to think about what added value these work patterns could bring. Instead of asking ‘how can we be as effective as we would be if we were all in one place?’ perhaps the question should be, ‘how can working remotely and flexibly add greater value to our customers; better service, increased efficiency? Can it actually enhance the quality of what we produce?’ Competitive advantage could be gained by proactively offering to place members of your team within a customer’s business. Remote working at client sites may prove both a practical task-based solution as well as a great opportunity to cement relationships. The insight into your client’s culture and business system, plus the daily ‘water cooler’ conversations with a wider range of contacts, could even provide the nuggets of a new product or service idea. Perhaps those seeking flexible hours can contribute to a move into overseas markets, with early birds or night owls ideally placed to respond to international time zones, outside of normal UK trading times. By enabling remote and flexible working schedules, businesses will also be able to tap into a larger geographic pool of talent and employees can be liberated from the tight restraints of nine-to-five schedules. A greater working-life balance and the freedom of flexible working are no longer considered tempting bonuses, but for many, they are now real priorities – research even suggests that staff value flexible working more than pay rises.

Empowering people to take control of their own time management and implementing remote working and other flexible working policies can have major benefits for staff retention. Hays research highlights that 85 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to stay with an employer who offered flexible working. According to industry analysts IDC, staff replacement costs reach 150% of the departing employee’s annual compensation figure, which is believed to be around £4,500 on average. Higher levels of staff retention reduce turnover costs, enabling businesses to see a true return on investment for flexible working and positive impact on their talent management programme.

Friend or foe?
For many businesses, it’s no longer always necessary to have employees all in one place together, at the same time, in order to deliver the service or product on which that business is founded. While the terrain of this new working landscape requires some different tools and poses plenty of challenges, technology also presents some of the solutions – particularly when it comes to measuring time and attendance of an ‘absent’ workforce.

Advances in technology have led to the development of more complex time and workforce management systems, enabling financial teams to realise the monetary value of increased productivity, performance and above all, output. Not only do these systems record hours worked, they synchronise time and attendance data with project and activity tracking and holiday and overtime management, as well as HR recording and integration with access control and payroll.

By using such systems, businesses can more easily reduce overtime costs and wastage by working with managers and HR departments to monitor staff hours and timekeeping to ensure better planning, shift management and staff deployment. Remote working can be a friend to business, with the right steer from savvy HR professionals.

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