Are you working or shirking from home?

Staff ill health

During recent weather-related travel disruption, I was inundated with various pieces of information on software that spies on home based employees to check that they really are working, not shirking from home. As Acas opens a consultation on a draft Code of Practice regarding the extended right to request flexible working; and figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show the number of people working from home in the UK has risen to over 10 per cent – the advent of these systems begs the question: do employers really trust their staff enough to let them work remotely?

Last month the government’s announcement of the Children and Families Bill which introduces shared parental leave and extends the right to request flexible working to all employees was given a lukewarm welcome by employment experts, with the CBI for instance stating that employers should reserve the right to say no to flexible working requests. Undaunted, the government is pushing ahead with plans to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees who have worked for their employer for 26 weeks or more and has asked Acas to produce a Code of Practice to help businesses manage this new extended right.

The employment relations body is now looking for views from employees and employers on how they’d face the “challenges in managing flexible working requests.”

This is a moot point, for while ONS figures show the number of people working from home in the UK increased from 9.2% in 2001 to 10.7% in 2012, some recent research suggests employers’ support for home working is not as enthusiastic as they may publically profess, while many employees are sceptical of its supposed benefits.

Research published by O2 last week found that less than one fifth of employees felt they were being encouraged to work flexibly – especially as their managers were failing to lead by example by rarely working from home themselves. And according to data from HR recruiter Ortus, over half the staff they questioned thought the reason for their employers’ adoption of flexible working policies was efficiency and productivity, not to help them manage the number of hours they worked.

You could argue it doesn’t really matter why an organisation introduces a flexible working programme, as long as it’s available. But what these reports illustrate is how important it is to employees to feel they’re being trusted to do the work asked of them, without feeling they’re being manoeuvred into working longer hours at home or that they’ll be labelled as “shirking from home” on the days they’re not at their office desk.

The unfortunate truth is that the development of technologies that enable people to work almost anywhere, hasn’t been matched by the way the average workplace is managed in the 21st century. For far too many employers the visible evidence that staff are beavering away at their desk is the only real proof they’ll accept that any work is being done.

The Acas consultation on the Draft Code of Practice on the extended right to request flexible working will run for 12 weeks from 25 February 2013 and the closing date for responses is 20 May 2013. For further information visit www.acas.org.uk/flexible

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