What the increase in remote working means for SMEs

A woman working on a tablet computer in a kitchen
Home office: flexible working is becoming the norm Credit: Getty

The acknowledgement of the need for flexible working has been largely welcomed but what challenges does this pose to small businesses?

By the end of this year, more than 50pc of businesses in the UK are likely to have flexible working policies in place, with the tipping point – when office and desk-based working becomes the exception rather than the rule – having been reached.

That is according to a Citrix-commissioned report by The Work Foundation at Lancaster University, published in February 2016, which also predicted that by 2020 some 70pc of organisations will have followed suit, thus banishing many working norms – such as the nine-to-five shift in the office – to the past.

But what does that mean for SME owners? What should you be thinking about to enable your staff to work at home, or on the move? And which productivity tools are best?

By the end of this year, more than 50pc of businesses in the UK are likely to have flexible working policies in place

Professor Geraint Johnes, director of research at The Work Foundation, says: “One of the biggest challenges for small businesses is to learn how to manage the activities of their staff who are mobile workers. Getting people together to collaborate requires making arrangements in advance and deciding on a software platform (Skype, for example) on which meetings can take place.

“This change in routine may be daunting, but the ability not to be restricted by space opens up all sorts of possibilities for collaboration – both with people inside the firm and those outside. While the flexibility is a plus, firms need to be aware of the drawbacks, and put arrangements in to compensate.”

Paul Dunne, UK and Ireland manager of Plantronics, an electronics company producing audio communications equipment for business and consumers, agrees and says: “Mobile working can allow SMEs to cut costs significantly by reducing the need for physical office space.

“Real estate costs a great deal of money and when combining that with the overheads of heating, managing phone lines and IT infrastructure, and maintaining the general office environment, the traditional work space becomes a significant strain on budgets.”

Choosing your own office

“With flexible working you could do away with the office altogether or, at the very least, reduce bricks and mortar considerably,” notes Mr Dunne. “From an employee’s point of view, they’re able to save time and money by reducing their commute, and they’re able to work from a comfortable environment with little or no distractions, increasing both productivity and morale.”

However, on team bonding Prof Johnes warns: “Water cooler conversations may decline, so opportunities for workers to meet together virtually, outside of the pressure cooker, need to be built into the timetable.”

Gary Turner, co-founder and UK managing director of Xero, a software company that develops cloud-based accounting software for SMEs, says: “The modern workforce is far less interested in a dedicated desk or chair set-up at the office, so as long as your employees are all invested, mobile working can transform a business.

“Home working enables you to fit your work life into your other responsibilities and can allow you to get a lot done in a short amount of time – but you must be clever with the tools you use and be wary of other distractions, particularly regarding family life.”

With flexible working you could do away with the office altogether or, at the very least, reduce bricks and mortar considerably

Regarding tips for tools, he adds: “Mobile apps can boost your business to get the most from employees wherever they are. Google Hangouts enables ad-hoc 1:1 video conversations and larger group meetings of up to 25 participants with chat-group features to provide backchannel for crowdsourcing quick answers.

“Also, project management tools such as Basecamp and smart inbox management can help you manage your tasks, and cloud software enables teams to collaborate remotely on shared documents via software such as Google Drive, saving valuable time.”

The home-working office is easily equipped without filling the room with clutter. Portable hard drives and USBs are handy backups to cloud services, and privacy filters will help the keep home working environment secure and private.

“Work is what you do and not where you go,” suggests Rami Houbby, managing director of internet telephony service provider NFON UK. “There are many productivity tools that can help workers get the most out of mobile working. Services such as cloud telephony can make them feel and work as if they were behind their desk. Added to that are features such as desktop sharing, presence and instant messaging, so they can communicate effectively and seamlessly.”

Getting to the heart of the matter, Mr Houbby adds: “While everyone is talking about video conferencing, which has become much more affordable, the main barrier to adoption is still perception: not all staff members are comfortable to be seen in their home clothing on the screen.”

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