The number of people choosing to work remotely has risen significantly in recent years. The reasons are not difficult to understand. With the rising costs of living, many couples find it extremely difficult to survive on one income. This places huge pressure on parents to work full time rather than stay at home with children. But with both parents working, looking after children can be exceptionally difficult – and expensive.
Additionally, many working professionals face a lengthy commute every day, which can be stressful for many people. A recent ESRI study showed that job stress in Ireland doubled between 2010 and 2015.
With job stress levels on the rise, some employers are seeking to mitigate the problem by allowing staff to work remotely. But how flexible should employers be and what exactly is asking too much?
Advances in technology have made working from home a much more viable option than before. Cloud technology and video-conferencing platforms such as Skype have made remote working much easier than in the past.
Business professionals who spend a great deal of their time travelling benefit enormously from the improvements in technology. Every day, remote access technology enables salespeople, journalists and management consultants to actively participate in important meetings from hotel rooms or airports.
And as increasing numbers of corporations adopt an international outlook, remote access technology will prove hugely advantageous in providing employees greater flexibility. This will play an integral role in developing the shape of the economy of the future.
Not surprisingly, working from home has become an increasingly popular option for many people.
According to the 2018 report on business communications technology from Irish VoIP group Blueface, remote working will likely rival fixed office locations by 2025. Job-listing search engine Indeed found that the number of Irish people searching for jobs including the word "remote" surged by 171 per cent in late 2017.
Employers need to adopt a more flexible approach toward employees, particularly towards those who are parents of young children. Adopting a flexible attitude that allows employees to work from home all or part of the time can also boost employee morale by cutting out the tedious daily commute. And, as an added benefit in an era when climate change is a growing political priority, it will help reduce our carbon footprint.
With the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics, the 21st century will witness significant changes across all industries. Any corporation that wishes to remain competitive must learn to embrace change. Becoming flexible in regard to working from home is a key step in this regard. But just how flexible should employers become?
One of the key challenges of working from home is that, for most workers, it is lonelier. The absence of interaction with colleagues presents a very different type of work environment to that which most people are used to. Dealing with this sense of isolation will be a formidable hurdle to the future success of working remotely.
Another issue is communication. Video conference calls and emails are not a substitute for important face-to-face meetings. Clear communication is paramount for the success of any corporation. Even with face-to-face interaction in offices, this is already a sizeable challenge for most corporations. As more and more employees choose to work remotely, this will present an even bigger hurdle.
Building team spirit in a team or workforce where some or all are working remotely is another headache. Creating a teamwork ethos is crucial to the growth, development and success of any team or business. Some level of face-to-face interaction in the office environment will always be needed.
The Blueface survey says that, even now, 78 per cent of businesses have implemented some form of remote-working policies. For some, there is limited downside in allowing workers operate remotely for much of the working week or the duration of a particular project. For others, the competing demands on resources and the nature of the work involved means that a more regular office presence is required.
But, certainly in an environment where we are approaching full employment and there is a need to encourage working-age women, in particular, back into the active workforce, it seems sensible to work towards a position where employees can work from home for a minimum of two days per week. This would reduce stress and grant employees the flexibility they increasingly require to balance work commitments with time to spend with family in a world where many are carers for elderly relatives or struggling to fund affordable care for children.
And it would still ensure a physical office presence for important meetings and other commitments, and to build a positive team and workplace environment. As the world becomes increasingly web connected, it is important that employees remain connected to one another through daily social interaction.
Corporations need to become more flexible, but they must also ensure that employees remain aligned to the corporation’s goals and maintain a team spirit with their colleagues. This can be accomplished only by striking a balance between working remotely and working in the office.
David Gordon is a lecturer in web design and data visualisation at Dublin Business School