With remote working, video conferencing and social networking it’s easy to think that actually going into the office is no longer a compulsory part of anyone’s job. The much-mooted death of the office was the major topic discussed at a roundtable sponsored by conference-call providers Powwownow, hosted by the Guardian, and attended by people from across British industry, from banking to leisure.
They agreed that companies can benefit from giving employees the opportunity to work remotely – but it’s still important to offer them the option of office space.
This flexibility of location isn’t found everywhere. One of the meeting’s big talking points was Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban remote working. The company memo, from human resources chief Jackie Reses, read: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”
Her point was completely understood by the roundtable participants. “I don’t believe the technology is there yet to allow us to work together remotely,” admitted Paul Lees, CEO of Powwownow.
His colleague, Robert Gorby, suggested there was too much focus on the existence of the technology allowing remote working without consideration of whether or not people could use it or even wanted to use it.
It’s about working with the grain of people’s lives
“It’s about working with the grain of people’s lives,” said Jonathan Swan, policy and research officer for Working Families, an organisation which promotes work-life balance. “Choice is very important. There shouldn’t be a technology-driven compulsion to work in a certain way. The office should remain for those that want the office – but that’s not necessarily the old headquarters or mothership any more.”
The ability to work remotely eliminates the necessity for “presenteeism” – being in the office as much as possible – but it creates a potential problem for managers used to having their team in the same room as them.
David D’Souza, managing director of Oddbody Consulting, expressed a concern that technology could allow employers to track their staff – and demonstrate a lack of trust in them.
Time etc co-founder Victoria Mileham agreed, saying that clients had a tendency to be suspicious about how long work was taking if they could not see the people doing it.
Andy Lake, managing director and editor of online work journal Flexibility said this caution was a mistake: “People make assumptions about traditional ways of working, and they worry – but you should be as contactable as before, if not more so.”
Productivity and job satisfaction
Discussion chair Sue Littlemore asked how managers could be sure someone in an office was doing what was required: “Is the key question really: ‘Are we managing these people well?’”
Laurie Willis, director of PWM Training, said remote working “has to involve good management and has to envelop trust over the whole organisation. It is now a driver in being successful.”
CBI data states that 59% of firms have remote-working employees. Lake said that Department for Business surveys showed that more than 90% of companies offered flexible working of some kind, but that this was mostly flexible hours and part-time working rather than home working. “There are more immersive forms of technology coming along – there’ll be a whole new wave, making remote working far more of a normal experience,” he said.
Lake said that his data indicated that more than 90% of companies encouraged home or remote working to some degree. “There are more immersive forms of technology coming along – there’ll be a whole new wave, making remote working far more of a normal experience,” he said.
And remote working doesn’t just mean people have to set up a corner of their homes to dedicate to work – there’s the option of renting space for meetings when required.
“Flexible working isn’t just office or home – there may be somewhere near home with better facilities,” pointed out Celia Donne, global operations director of office accommodation providers Regus.
Ian Adams, head of marketing strategy development and facilities management at Mitie, said that encouraging different ways of working allowed companies to reduce their rent and property costs.
“It’s a trend that is significant,” he said. “If you’re a salesperson, you probably don’t need a full-time office space. If you’re a legal clerk, you may need to be there four days a week.”
Daryl Wilkinson, head of group digital development at Nationwide, said that around a quarter of his team worked remotely, and he wanted to encourage it – to empower his staff and as a demonstration to the rest of the company.
He added that it would not be unusual to find his team on social media outside of normal working hours – discussing the day’s work or the tasks for tomorrow.
“There’s less stress in the office and the workplace – people feel empowered to work in a way that suits them and suits the business,” he said. “When you’re tweeting with people in your team close to midnight, it brings home that people are experiencing something beyond ‘doing work’ – they’re engaged in a different way.”
It was suggested that the outlay for businesses of providing the technology to work remotely would easily be offset by the benefits, which include working in a number of different spaces. “It provides more opportunity to work with people you wouldn’t otherwise see if you worked in an office – people from all over the world with different skillsets,” said Laura Yates, partner of Wish.co.uk, a company offering a range of experience days. “It’s achieving a balance.”
Adams said new ways of working had led to new roles within companies: “We’re seeing greater collaboration between HR, IT, property and facilities management and job titles like ‘workplace director’ making this agile workplace happen.”
Lees talked about SMEs, including Powwownow, outsourcing some work to agencies. “That’s how SMEs will grow up – they won’t bring things into the building, they’ll employ specialists,” he said.
Gorby agreed, saying that video-calling was a key to the success of this approach. “This trust thing is really interesting,” he said. “You gain trust by giving people the accountability and responsibility to get on with their job however they want.”
Wilkinson said that bringing different people from different companies together to do their work was fascinating. “I believe it begins with the culture of the business changing to embrace flexible working. The technology facilitates that but it shouldn’t lead that.”
Lake predicted that the nature of meeting would change. “Face-to-face means being there in person, but virtual face-to-face will become a much more normal thing to do,” he said. “People blend things they do, and they’ll have more options rather than fewer.”
Yates speculated that performance could be improved through the freedom and flexibility of being released from an office, but also suggested that there was a need to learn about work discipline before being able to work remotely, mentioning issues such as communication and punctuality.
You’ve got to have discipline to work in an agile way at home
Adams agreed with this point: “You’ve got to have discipline to work in an agile way at home.”
Channel 4’s head of corporate services, Julie Kortens, highlighted some of the benefits of working onsite. “You need guidance as you’re developing,” she said, adding it was important for young people to have a sense of belonging, and that they needed to know the rules and boundaries between work and play before taking advantage of remote working.
There was a murmur of agreement when Adams expressed a feeling of guilt at eating lunch in the garden on work-at-home days.
Littlemore mentioned some research which suggested that people working from home actually worked longer than their contracted hours.
Wilkinson agreed that this was likely, pointing to people on his team who were working from home but wanted to video-conference in to the office to demonstrate their presence. “They videoed in, dressed very appropriately, looking like they’d been up for hours!” he said. “Slowly you could see people relax into it. It’s a natural phase you have to go through.”
D’Souza spoke for the whole meeting when he concluded: “The office isn’t dead – it’s just becoming far more fluid.”
Key discussion points
• The traditional office is not dead, but it is changing, encompassing new ways of working.
• The culture of presenteeism, on the other hand, may be dead or dying as companies offer their staff the opportunity to work more flexibly, perhaps remotely or from home.
• Big changes work best when led by employees through choice.
• Trust is important – managers trusting employees and vice versa.
• There are potential issues around some groups who may feel excluded from either the office or the option of remote working.
At the table
Sue Littlemore (Chair) Journalist
Ian Adams Head of marketing strategy development, facilities management, Mitie
Julie Kortens Chairman, BIFM, and head of corporate services, Channel 4
Celia Donne Global operations director, Regus
David D’Souza Managing director, Oddbody Consulting
Andy Lake Managing director and editor, Flexiblity
Robert Gorby Marketing director, Powwownow
Charlie Green CEO, The Office Group
Paul Lees CEO,Powwownow
Victoria Mileham Co-founder, Time etc
Jonathan Swan Policy and research officer, Working Families
Daryl Wilkinson Head of group digital development, Nationwide
Laurie Willis Director, PWM Training
Laura Yates Partner, Wish.co.uk
This content has been sponsored by Powwownow (whose brand it displays). All content is editorially independent. Contact Jacob Manders on 020 3353 2351
(firstname.lastname@example.org). For information on roundtables visit: theguardian.com/sponsored-content
• This article was amended on 9 October 2014. An earlier version misquoted Andy Lake, managing director and editor of the online work journal Flexibility, as saying his data indicated that more than 90% of companies encouraged home or remote working to some degree. In fact he said Department for Business surveys showed that more than 90% of companies offered flexible working of some kind, but that this was mostly flexible hours and part-time working rather than home working.