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When your home is your office . . .

The increasing mobility of the workforce is presenting both opportunities and challenges to employers and workers

Advantages to the introduction of mobile working include increased motivation generated by the ability to look after family and personal needs. Photograph: iStock

Advantages to the introduction of mobile working include increased motivation generated by the ability to look after family and personal needs. Photograph: iStock

 

The days of the nine-to-five desk-bound job may not quite be coming to an end anytime soon but jobs are becoming increasingly flexible, with home and remote working more the norm than the exception in many workplaces. This is at least partly driven by demand on the part of the workforce, according to Deloitte global employer solutions partner Daryl Hanberry.

“The new generation of workers is demanding a lot more flexibility,” he says. “They are demanding mobility whether that’s due to childcare, or commutes or wanting to live in the country or a variety of other reasons. In other cases, employers are offering mobility and flexibility where talent is not plentiful and harder to get. They are allowing employees to work from home where it fits in with the organisation’s needs.

“In Deloitte, we have employees who come to work once or twice a week and work from home the rest of the time,” he adds. “Giving employees flexibility and empowerment can be an ideal way of attracting and retaining talent. The workforce of the future wants a high level of empowerment and autonomy. The age of micromanaging employees is rapidly coming to an end.”

UCD Quinn School of Business director Dr Maeve Houlihan believes technology is playing a major role as well. “Most of all, it’s happening because it can,” she says. “Twenty years ago, I was beginning my research in UCD on teleworking. That’s what we called it at the time. The EU was putting huge money into it at the time as it was seen as a solution to commutes and other issues. It has taken 20 years for it to become normal and it’s largely because of mobile technology.”

The slow rate of adoption of mobile working is the only thing that really surprises Gayle Bowen, head of the Dublin office with law firm Pinsent Masons. “In today’s world, where convenience and flexibility are king, it always surprises me the slow pace with which the corporate world and, in particular, law firms embrace this reality in relation to their staff,” she says. “It is now possible to perform all kinds of transactions in normal life on our phones in the space of 10 minutes which previously might have taken a few hours. Transferring money, topping up credit on our travel cards, booking flights and so on, can all now be achieved while on the go. In business, the key to embracing this reality is to see this as a win-win situation for both staff and for employers and not just as a perk.”

Considerable advantages

According to Bowen, there are considerable advantages to the introduction of mobile working, including reduced travel times, increased motivation generated by the ability to look after family and personal needs, reduced absences due to sick leave, and lower office overheads.

But there can be challenges as well. “It’s not for everyone,” says Hanberry. “Back in the snow, everyone worked from home. Everyone in Deloitte is technology-enabled to work from home. Their laptops can do everything. They can connect to Skype and use it as a phone. But a lot of people said they missed the office and would prefer to work from there. Others said they were more productive and got more done when working from home. It’s a question of getting the balance right.”

There can also be issues around team spirit and performance management. “If people are working five days a week from home and never see each other, that can be difficult,” he adds. “If they are in for one or two days a week they can structure meetings around that. Video conferencing is important for that as it can make people feel more connected.”

Houlihan agrees. “The community aspect matters and not just for the sake of human connection but also the magic mix of ideas you get. I’m a big fan of trusting and enabling rather than controlling and over-engineering. People find the things that work for them. If people working from home are not connecting with their colleagues that can be a problem. But smart people are going to recognise that and find ways to overcome it. You don’t necessarily have to be in the same room or building to be able to communicate and connect with them.”

Many people seeking mobile and flexible working options are moving into the gig economy, according to Hanberry. “They are looking for flexibility in where and how often they work. That could be Sunday afternoons or Saturday nights, whatever suits their lifestyle. The flexibility and power to control their work has appeal for lots of people. It’s a whole new way of working and it empowers the employee to work when they want to. It’s not for everyone though and some people want the security of a traditional job. It will certainly have an impact on retirement. People will be able to continue to work part-time after retirement if they wish.”

He foresees continued growth in the area. “More and more sectors are looking at putting things on platforms or apps. Can you translate this document? This is what we are willing to pay. It’s fairly niche, this is what we’ll pay, can you do it? It’s a totally different way of running a business.”

This will pose challenges for governments as well. “The interesting piece will be how tax authorities deal with it,” he says. “They are used to dealing with PAYE workers who work for employers. The vast majority of employers are tax-compliant and they deduct the tax and send it on to the Revenue. The pure complexity of the tax system will be a challenge when it comes to dealing with large numbers of self-employed people in the gig economy. It will be interesting to see how Revenue authorities deal with this. But the gig economy is not new. It has been there in media, TV and the entertainment worlds for many years and the rest of the world is just catching up.”