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Anne Sharp: Holding on or letting go? Learning to trust the homeworker

Wednesday 09 July 2014

In our blog series on homeworking, Anne Sharp, Acas Chief Executive, talks about the rise of homeworking.

 

Anne Sharp

Anne Sharp has been the Acas Chief Executive since February 2013. Prior to joining Acas, Anne was the Chief Executive Officer of the Judicial Offices based in the Royal Courts of Justice.

Anne Sharp

Homeworking is on the rise.

The Office for National Statistics, estimates that 4.2 million people in the UK are homeworkers: just under 14 per cent of the working population, and the highest rate of homeworking since records began in 1998. Two thirds of homeworkers are self-employed, leaving 1.4 million homeworkers who are employees.

When the London School of Economics did a survey of the whole of Acas, 46% of respondents confirmed that they work from home on a regular basis. With 11% of Acas staff working as designated homeworkers, we clearly have a vested interest in making it work for us. But what would we say to an organisation that is considering introducing homeworking?

Although the research we commissioned only looks at the experience of our own staff and managers, it gives us a useful insight into some of the key issues (you can find a summary of the main findings in a policy paper we have just published).

We found that technology, communications and effective management were important elements of success. But while Acas managers rated well on trust, for many this can be an insurmountable problem in managing homeworkers.

Managers may feel more confident with their colleagues in sight. This isn't necessarily just about keeping an eye on people: it often reflects a commitment to coaching staff, sharing experience and building a team.

On the other hand, homeworkers may be perceived as falling short as team members, not prepared to muck in, at risk of becoming isolated and of failing to separate work and home life, so that either or both suffer.

Yet we know from research studies that homeworkers are often more engaged, productive and have a greater sense of job satisfaction than their office-based colleagues. There seems to be no evidence that concerns about trust are justified.

This sounds a bit like a tug of war between the merits of home and office working. However, our research and experience tell us that the question is more about achieving the right balance. In Acas, those with the highest job satisfaction are the flexible workers, who spend a significant amount of time in the office and the rest working at or from home.

The recipe for success depends on the situation: for some organisations, people and roles, homeworking works brilliantly. There's no single answer - but establishing clear expectations, regular communication and contact are always important and provide the basis for trust. And when things aren't going well, having the confidence and skills to handle honest conversations helps avoid problems escalating.

So, perhaps we should simply accept that home and flexible working are a welcome part of modern working life and instead debate whether our workplace relationships and line manager skills are at the level we need in managing these different arrangements.

As the Acas research suggests: "managers must be willing and able to relinquish traditional notions of how best to manage performance - usually based on direct supervision - and adopt new ways of motivating and monitoring their staff."

Read other blogs in our homeworking series

Rebecca George: Homeworking - the value and the risks

Richard Fox: Acas - your flexible friend

Sarah Jackson: It's not just about homeworking

Further information

Acas guidance on homeworking

pdf  Homeworking - a guide for employers and employees [263kb]

pdf  Agile but fragile: The changing face of UK homeworking – what works best for whom? [150kb] - Acas Policy Discussion Paper by Andrew Sutherland

4 Comments

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  • Posted by Sarah Jackson, Working Families  |  10 July 2014, 11:00AM

    Interesting blog, Anne. I am looking forward to feeding in the Working Families perspective in a couple of weeks.

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  • Posted by Rebecca George  |  10 July 2014, 11:35AM

    Anne's blog makes interesting reading, but in my opinion too much home working doesn't work. Too much presenteeism doesn't work either. During my career, I have worked at opposite ends of the spectrum and I believe that what works best is a hybrid approach which creates the best possible mix. Find out more about my views on the values and risks of homeworking in my blog next week.

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  • Posted by Andrew Sutherland, Senior Research Officer, Acas  |  11 July 2014, 2:20PM

    Hi Anne,

    Your thoughts echo the research undertaken for us by the London School of Economics (LSE), who looked at effective management of homeworking by evaluating Acas’ own practices as a case in point.

    You are right to point out that balance is often the key to successful homeworking. The LSE research shows that it is those Acas colleagues who are able to mix home and office work who seem to fare best.

    They are the ones who get to enjoy the upsides of homeworking (greater flexibility, fewer distractions, more autonomy over the working day etc.) as well as being protected from the big downsides of habitual homeworking: ‘social’ and ‘professional’ isolation.

    The point you make here about managers feeling more confident with their colleagues in sight really merits restating: the literature is unequivocal that organisations have the best chance of managing homeworking successfully when managers trust employees and performance manage based on results. Happily, the LSE found that this tends to happen in Acas to a greater or lesser extent, partly because many of the jobs being done here are outcomes-based, which makes performance management at arms’ length so much more practicable.

    The all-to-common alternative can be managing people according to what’s been called their ‘passive face time’. It’s something Daniel Cable, professor of organisation behaviour at London Business School, has written widely about and which I touched on in my recent policy paper.  ‘Passive face time’ is simply the time one spends being seen in the workplace. Even when office-based and homeworking employees are equally productive, Cable’s research suggests that managers evaluate them differently, making unconscious inferences about people’s characters based simply on how much ‘passive face time’ they’ve racked up.

    So office-based staff tend to be credited with being responsible, dedicated, committed and dependable – thanks purely to being seen at work, and without any information about what they’ve actually been doing. The corollary for the homeworker is clear: unless they have a manager who has been able, as you say, to break with a traditional, direct supervision-approach to managing performance, then their invisibility risks working against them.  Proof positive that managing homeworkers does represent a special challenge for many managers but that comprehensive guidance can help to make it work for all parties.

    -Andrew

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  • Posted by David Webb, Acas writer/editor  |  23 July 2014, 10:21AM

    Hi Anne,

    A very incisive blog.

    Homeworking and I seem to have become attached, by chance. Over the past three years in Acas, I’ve split my time between the office and home. Before that, my work in the private sector involved managing some homeworkers.

    And early on in my working life, my then employer told me it was shutting the district office where I was based to cut overheads, but wanted to keep me on, working from home.

    As it turned out, that proved very successful for me, although somewhat remote. In those days, I was living on my own 700 feet up a Cumbria hillside, where the business’s nearest office was nearly 25 miles away and the head office almost 50 miles away.

    The point I’m coming to is that through that fairly wide personal experience over nine years, I thought I knew more about homeworking than it turns out I actually did.

    What became apparent to me in writing Acas guidance on homeworking is that there is a lot more to developing a policy, and to maintaining and managing successful employment relations when staff are home workers than might at first meet the eye. That detail really does matter, and I have been heartened to see the guidance described as comprehensive.

    Employers and employees need to weigh up all factors in assessing whether or not homeworking is a sound and practical option. But where these are overlooked or not adequately thought through, picking up the pieces can be draining and time-consuming for both managers and the homeworker.

    However, if carefully considered and planned, homeworking can benefit both employer and employee in the right circumstances.

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