Billionaire inventor Sir James Dyson has called on the government to encourage more people to return to their offices, claiming the “chances of the next generation will suffer” if home-working continues.
Writing for the Daily Telegraph, Dyson said allowing flexible working on a long-term basis risks creating a “two-tier workforce”. He said remote working was undermining the competitiveness of businesses.
He wrote: “Glib statements from ministers about home-working being ‘here to stay’ show a lack of understanding of the detrimental impact that it is having. Where is their output-based evidence?
“We risk creating a two-tier workforce with those at home becoming less and less effective, leaving those diligently attending the workplace to drive the business forward.”
The government said it expects a gradual return to workplaces after England’s work from home guidance was lifted on 19 July. However, many firms have chosen to continue allowing employees to work from home or enable people to work from home part-time.
In March, a survey of more than 3,000 workers by Strathclyde Business School and the University of Manchester found that fewer than one in ten want to return to the office full-time.
A separate YouGov poll of 1,061 business leaders revealed one in four businesses intend to allow their staff to work from home at least some of the time, with Barclays chief executive Jes Staley stating earlier this year that remote work will become the norm.
However, not all business leaders are convinced of the benefits of remote working. But is Dyson correct in suggesting that remote working makes firms less effective — and does home-working make businesses less competitive?
Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, says this isn’t necessarily true. “As long as flexible working is managed effectively, many employers will see a benefit from it, rather than it being a detriment,” he explains. “Whilst it is not suitable for all businesses, as there will always be ways of working that are unique to an individual company, many will be able to adopt this practice with positive effects on their output and performance.
“The view that those in the office work harder and produce more is no longer applicable, and to place greater value on those employees in the office fails to recognise the valuable contribution of home-based staff,” he says. “There is no reason that a properly-managed, blended workforce cannot work together for success. Whether productivity and effectiveness actually makes a firm more competitive also depends on the individual business and what their product is, Price adds.
“A goal of productivity in isolation to other measures of performance will miss out on the benefits of creativity, knowledge-sharing and employee satisfaction, all of which combine to ensure employees are truly doing their best job,” he says. “Competitiveness comes from the ability to innovate and produce quality output, which is unlikely to be achieved pursuing productivity alone.”
In addition, Price adds, flexible working can boost productivity and effectiveness in a workforce. The shift to remote working can lead to concerns of workers “shirking from home” but a landmark study suggests these worries are unfounded.
In 2013, Stanford University researchers worked with a Chinese company to carry out a pioneering study of 16,000 workers over nine months to examine remote-work productivity. The results showed that working from home increased productivity by 13% due to a quieter working environment and fewer breaks and sick days. Workers also reported improved work satisfaction, and attrition rates were cut by 50%.
Due to the success of the experiment, the Chinese travel agency gave all employees the choice of whether to work from home or the office. Over half of them switched, which led to the gains from working from home almost doubling to 22%.
More recent anecdotal evidence from home-workers supports the notion that remote working can boost productivity and effectiveness, too. Last year, 58% of workers surveyed by the internet provider Talk Talk said they had been more productive while working from home. Moreover, bosses agreed that working remotely had had a positive impact on the working day and their employees too.
Ultimately, remote working can bring benefits to both employers and employees, which can give businesses a competitive edge. “Offering flexible working can mean access to a much wider talent pool, so that businesses no longer have to be limited to a small geographic area in order to find the best employees,” says Price.
“As such, this will offer those businesses that are able to do this the pick of more diverse and capable candidates, ensuring that they truly get the best person out there for the job,” he adds. “Being flexible with employees should also boost engagement and loyalty rates, by demonstrating the value that is placed on the individual, ensuring that employees are best placed to perform well.”
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