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5 December 2019
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Remove work for a sensible employer

Road traffic waves are very noticeable in Europe. The entire city wakes up in the morning and gradually starts driving to their offices, and in the evening the wave returns. However, when traveling in the East, you start to understand that the city life here is different and unusual to that of Europe. It is more akin to some kind of a huge anthill: everyone is going somewhere, honking their car horns at each other, there are cars, donkey-drawn carts and an endless stream of scooters and small motorcycles.

In Africa, one can imagine how people had lived before the start of the Industrial Revolution, before the centralisation of the means of production has forced people to gather in one place and work together at the same time. But the development of industry has since shaped the way of work that we are accustomed to today. The difference is that now most of us gather at 9 am in the morning not to assemble cars on a conveyor belt but to write emails and instant messengers to each other in the office and hold discussions in meeting rooms or on the phone. However, new types of work emerge every day that do not require the physical presence of a group of people in one place to achieve the desired results. This has already become the norm in many areas of business: international corporations successfully operate as distributed teams, with some of them considering the option to work remotely. For example, IBM has recently announced that up to 40% of its employees work partially or completely remotely.

The core business at our company ICL Services is providing a wide range of IT services to various customers around the world. A rather large portion of our specialists provides remote IT infrastructure support to European and Asian companies. We have been growing very well in the recent years, adding new customers to our portfolio and expanding our range of services in different languages and time zones. We achieve this by regularly opening new offices, and now our specialists work in Belgrade, Voronezh, Moscow, Kazan and Vladivostok. Last year, we came to the realisation that for further effective development, we, like many other IT companies, need to learn how to work efficiently not only from distributed offices but also by involving remote employees that work from home or small coworking spaces.

To minimise the risks of remote work implementation, we have decided to go simultaneously in two parallel ways. On the one hand, we try to study the accumulated experience of other companies and scientific articles on this topic, and, on the other hand, we learn through our own trial and error, by launching a pilot project for a small group of employees and collecting feedback from both the employees and their managers. For the pilot project, we have evenly distributed the candidates based on both their form of remote work:

  1. Full-time
  2. Scheduled
  3. Situational

and their place of work:

  1. Home
  2. Coworking space
  3. Client’s location

Going forward, I would like to add that the pilot project has not yet been completed, but we will carefully analyse the acquired experience and share it in a separate article as soon as feedback is collected.

The difficulties of distributed work

The first thing we needed to consider when starting the project were the problems we were going to face. Most prevalent in the literature were the following difficulties related to switching to remote work:

  • Disorganised communication and work
  • Rather dry, formal communications
  • Less social, interpersonal communication
  • The increased difficulty of project communications management
  • The increased difficulty of getting a clear picture of what is happening
  • The increased difficulty of assessing the real workload of employees
  • Fewer opportunities to influence employees (motivate, persuade, make sure they meet deadlines)
  • The difficulty of transferring knowledge

Most of these difficulties can be attributed to any kind of work in distributed teams, which is hardly new to us, and we have already acquired the experience needed to solve them. Line managers that have employees in other offices know that they need to pay more attention to communication and spend more time on it by arranging individual online discussions or just calling more often and sometimes discussing not only the ’dry’ work-related issues but also the topics that could arise during lunch or over coffee. Project managers, in turn, have long been organising teamwork through virtual workspaces, such as SharePoint or Teams. All meeting rooms are equipped with equipment for conference calls, and teams can easily access their remote employees when needed. Yes, all these difficulties can be worsen in the case of isolated work from home, but these are inherent problems of any distributed work.

Research of home-based work

In a study published by the MIT Sloan Management Review (Mulki, Bardhi, Lassk & Navaty-Dahl, 2009), scientists have identified the following factors that managers should pay extra attention to when organising home-based work:

  1. Ensuring a balance between work and personal life
  2. Overcoming the feeling of isolation at work
  3. Compensation for the lack of personal communication
  4. Compensating for the lack of opportunity to demonstrate your job achievements

Balance between personal life and work

Maintaining balance is important for all employees, but those who work from home tend to experience additional difficulties. On the one hand, they can work more, and both this study and many others have noted that home-based employees often work longer than the ones who work from the office. This is often caused by the fact that there are fewer distractions at home, making it easier to concentrate, and the fact that you do not need to drive to work, you can start working earlier and do not need to go back home after work. As a result, it is harder for employees to establish a normal work rhythm. Their work schedule becomes unstable: sometimes they devote a lot of time to work, and sometimes they are not able to overcome procrastination. Another major impeding factor is household stimuli and family members: when pets, friends, neighbours, and family members see that you are at home, they may demand your attention. It is difficult for an employee working from home to separate work time from personal time, so they easily get distracted during working hours by their everyday problems.

The feeling of isolation

It is good when your employees have active social lives and do not feel isolated in their personal life. However, home-based workers do not have the opportunity to have a coffee and chat with their colleagues, who also decided to take a break. It is very difficult for remote employees to establish normal social contacts with colleagues. Establishing great work communications is often not enough for them to become a little more personal and social. In this study, managers were recommended to pay extra attention to informal communication, develop social communications at work and celebrate some significant dates and events together.

Lack of personal communication

Lack of personal communication emerges from the fact that the basis of communication at work is work-related issues. In the office, sooner or later, people start sharing personal information, discussing how they spent the weekend or where they plan to go on vacation. In the case of remote work, however, it is more difficult for employees to overcome this barrier, and in this case managers should set a good example themselves by initiating more personal communication.

Demonstrating job achievements

In the office, employees communicate not only with the people they are required to directly interact in relation to work issues but also with their many other colleagues. You can share your achievements not only with your team but also with workers and management of other departments. But in the case of virtual teams, managers often replace almost the entire organisation to their remote employees. It is important to be aware of this problem and relay information about the achievements of remote employees to the rest of the team: tell about their unique skills and knowledge so that the others, when necessary, can ask them for help or information in the areas they are good at.

Another interesting study was conducted by Canadian scientists (Neufeld & Fang, 2005) to identify the factors that impact the efficiency and effectiveness of home-based workers. In this study, the scientists have concluded that individual factors, such as marital status and gender, do not affect work performance, and the greatest impact is caused by social factors (communication with colleagues, managers and family) and situational factors (availability of resources and absence of distractions).

One more study by Canadian scientists (Turetken, Jain, Quesenberry & Ngwenyama, 2011) was devoted to identifying the impact of individual, organisational, work-related and technological factors on the performance of home-based workers. As a result, they discovered that the length of service at an organisation does not have a significant impact on employee satisfaction or productivity, while their work experience in a particular position, on the contrary, strongly influences their job performance and satisfaction. Successfulness of organising home-based work is largely determined by measurability of work results, communication skills and the availability of a variety of communication channels.

Conclusions

To summarise all this material, experienced employees that already know their job well are socially mature and have well-developed communication skills can be safely switched to remote work. In our own company, we have compiled a list of positions that are acceptable for remote work, developed a remote work policy in the company, wrote guidelines for line and functional managers, requirements to workplaces of remote employees and updated the relevant procedures in the company. We developed training courses for employees and managers, where we introduce them to the process of switching to remote work and to the socio-organisational issues described above.

Perhaps, the offices of the future will be more like corporate universities with mainly two categories of employees: interns who are still familiarising themselves with the profession and their mentors. Most employees will be able to work from distributed and locations that are comfortable for them, united by small regional offices based on the hub-and-spoke model.


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