Flexible and remote working shifts the playing field for employers

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What the ‘workplace of the future’ means for employers

Jeans and sneakers at work, thinking caves, flexi-working, moving around the office by Segway, hot-desking, swings in reception and green walls in the lunchroom.

Competitive businesses are constantly thinking of ways to change the working environment in the hope of creating a more inspiring, productive, cost-effective workplace. The end game is more engaged workers and a better bottom line.

“Modern working” is a buzz-word used to describe the trend away from a traditional office-based workplace to a more flexible environment. It is the product of two key drivers: increasing pressure on organisations to be more competitive, efficient and flexible; and better connectivity and availability through communication and information technology.

New challenges

Modern working brings its own challenges. How can you trust your employees to do the work they are supposed to do? How can you control the way they use the company name? How do you ensure their safety in a decentralised environment? As employers move to keep up with industry trends, several new issues become relevant.

Modern working has led to new and innovative business models, enabling organisations to use technology as the primary means of connecting workers with the organisation. Increased flexibility can mean workers providing their own equipment, choosing their own working hours and place of work, zero hour contracts, working for multiple employers and communicating with their employers via apps and GPS technology.

The employee/contractor debate remains as relevant as ever. Miscategorising employees as contractors can give rise to tax liability, holiday pay arrears and personal grievance liability. Where work practices are less traditional, it is even more important for businesses to assess their worker relationships against the usual tests of control, integration and whether the relevant individual is in business on his or her own account.

  • Flexibility and fairness

    Employment law is changing to keep pace with the demands of the labour market and to balance flexibility and fairness. But it is important for businesses to continue to comply with their minimum obligations. For example, while increased flexibility around breaks was introduced earlier this year, zero-hour contracts (that do not require the employer to commit to a minimum number of hours but require the employee to be available for work) are being reconsidered and may be subject to further regulation later this year.

    A modern working environment can also make it more difficult to monitor working hours and manage performance in a traditional way.

    Remote working and cross-border reporting lines put increased emphasis on the relationship of trust between manager and employee.

    Although GPS trackers and web-based tools give some visibility as to where an employee is, and whether he or she is logged on, managers will also need to think about measuring performance through outputs and assessment against specific goals as opposed to monitoring hours spent in the workplace. The traditional rules of setting clear performance expectations, providing support and giving regular feedback have a renewed relevance in the modern workplace.

    Recently, a number of organisations publicly abandoned traditional half-yearly performance reviews. In this environment, informal communications around performance and regularly providing both positive and negative feedback will become crucial.

  • New ways of managing

    Managers need to be trained in having the difficult discussions at an early stage and in a sensitive way. Making the right hiring decisions, and conducting due diligence on prospective employees, will also become increasingly important. Employees working remotely may miss out on opportunities for work-shadowing, observation and training. Thought may need to be given to scheduling work so training opportunities align with times that the relevant employees are in the office.

    It is easy for employees working remotely to become isolated from their office-based colleagues. Where possible, they should be encouraged to attend the office regularly to interact with their colleagues face-to-face, particularly on an informal or social basis. Care needs to be taken to include remote employees in social invitations, team meetings or training sessions, using technology to facilitate this where appropriate. Managers should be alert to signs that their employees are becoming isolated and take steps to raise this at an early stage. 

  • Rules and risk management
    Modern working also carries technological risks. 

    As workers become more mobile, and access company and client data in different ways, it becomes increasingly important for businesses to have clear rules in place about the storage and use of confidential information. This can include not transmitting confidential information by insecure means, such as text or web-based email, and investing in secure technology to facilitate remote working.

    Where individuals are working from home, thought should be given to setting guidelines around access to, and storage of, information in the home environment so family members or visitors do not become privy to inside information.

    Remote working technology needs to be fast and reliable, or workers will resort to “workarounds”, which most likely will be less secure.

    The risk of employees misappropriating confidential information is highlighted in a modern working environment. Again, employers need to have clear policies in place around the transfer of documents to web-based applications, printing and transferring of information and the requirements of workers on termination around the return of documents in both hard copy and electronic form. Employers are assisted by technology as it becomes increasingly difficult for workers to cover their digital tracks.

  • Brand protection

    Many businesses are now leveraging social media to promote their brand and product offering. Having workers talk openly about a business can be a great advertisement for the company. However, those who disparage the business online or are “off message” in their public communications can do untold damage to a business brand.

    Aside from making good hiring decisions and developing trust, businesses should also give thought to a public communications or social media policy to guide workers in their online conduct. These policies can cover issues as diverse as the company’s ability to monitor electronic communications and the extent to which workers can speak on behalf of the company to the manner in which employees should treat client LinkedIn contacts when they terminate their employment.

    In addition to cyber safety, physical and mental safety throws up issues. Impending health and safety legislation emphasises a duty to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health and safety of all workers, and those affected by the work a business does, irrespective of the nature of the relationship or where that work takes place.

  • Ergonomic safety

    In a traditional office-based environment, employers are better able to monitor worker health and safety in terms of ergonomics, breaks and general wellbeing. In a flexible working environment, employers should educate workers to ensure their workplaces are ergonomically safe or send consultants to help, so the business has visibility over employee workload and working hours, and an early heads-up on any stress or isolation-related issues.

    Increased travel by workers emphasises the need to implement an appropriate vehicle policy, covering issues such as vehicle use, smoking, maintenance, driving behaviour and driving hours. Businesses with workers visiting client sites must be confident their clients have in place appropriate health and safety processes to ensure the safety of their workers while they are on site.

    Every working environment will be different so businesses should ensure their usual hazard and risk assessment processes adequately address the hazards faced by workers in a more flexible environment.

    Technology, combined with businesses looking to differentiate themselves in the market, has produced some truly innovative changes to the traditional working environment. Smart businesses will be considering how they can best harness technology and change their mind-set to offer employees flexibility and tailored working solutions, while at the same time protecting productivity, public image and profit.