Increase your company productivity: Tell staff to stay at home

I spend a lot of time with small business owners, either Business Matters readers, Trends Research panelists, or through the mentoring I do directly or through my involvement with The Prince’s Trust or Startup Britain and I am amazed that many of them don’t, or won’t, allow employees to remote-work.

I have been doing this myself and allowing my employees to do the same for a few years now and I believe business owners’ objections are out of date and misguided. You don’t need to see all of your staff everyday, you just need to know that they are working everyday!

The Capital Business Media office is in London’s Canary Wharf and prior to last years Olympic and Paralympic Games I received numerous warning from about 18months out about how bad the traffic flow through the area was going to be and how staff should avoid the peak hours. A problem when you have a staff of twenty five in a deadline based business!

We all know that todays technology allows employees to be productive from almost anywhere. One member of the editorial team says that some of his best writing is done at the local Starbucks or while sitting at home of an evening un-pestered by the phone, colleagues, or the ping of incoming emails. I myself far prefer to look at detailed spreadsheets of an evening for similar reasons.

We are not alone. Companies large and small have implemented flexible work schedules, including full home-working and offering this option can definitely lead to a happier and more productive workforce.

The direct costs to an employer in offering this facility is also far less than you would expect, and when factoring in physical office costs + a possible boost in productivity it will probably add and not detract from your bottom line.

But that’s not to say a work-from-home policy is something to enter into lightly. It must be implemented correctly to get the greatest benefit.

It is also not just established companies who should be re-thinking their processes as why if you are just starting out do you need to have an office cost on your overhead?

Entrepreneurs and small business owners are a bunch of rule breakers, part of the whole benefit to being a small company is that you can react to things at a James Bond Sunseeker’esq pace compared to the Oil Tanker manoeuvre pace of larger rivals.  Most SME owners are therefore opposed to having too many rules and policies, preferring to keep the company structure loose and flexible, I know I am.

But for issues like home-working, I have learned it’s important to set the ground rules for your employees. Many workers actually perform better with a clear structure.

The guidelines need to include direction on when and how you will allow home/flexible working. A prime example is the recent disruption following the snow fall. If a staff member is going to battle their way in arriving at 10.15 and wanting to leave at 4.15, why make them do that?

Also is this something that employees have to earn? Do they need to reach a certain job title or have been with the company a specific length of time?

Is there a limit or a framework–a certain number of days per month or per week? How do work from home days link to school holiday periods or holidays? Employees always want to “work from home” the days before or after a holiday: Are you ok with that?

Can a home working policy be universal or are there specific roles in your organisation which are not possible or suitable?

Use home working to your advantage.
Provide a clear distinction between what is a work from home day and what is a ‘holiday/annual leave’ day. For example, I encourage employees to work from home if they have a doctor’s or dentist appointment. In my experience, coming in and out of the office around the appointment is disruptive and unproductive. Keeping the day flexible allows the employee to get their tasks accomplished on their own schedule.

On the other hand, if an employee needs to stay home with a sick child, that may not qualify as a home working day, since their focus is not likely to be on their job.

You might also think about using home-working as part of a salary review process. I am quite happy for London Underground to give my staff a £1,500.00 bonus as they no longer have to buy an annual season ticket to get to work, it means we don’t have to!

Trust & control measures are key
In all of my conversation on this subject, their biggest objection to home working was reduced productivity. But in the same breath most admitted they spend a lot of time on work outside the office, often accomplishing a great deal. In most case their barrier was pretty basic: a lack of trust in their employees.

A year out from the Olympic Games we closed the entire office for a whole week as a dry run to what we would plan to do during the games themselves and productivity went up by just over 20 per cent. There was also more creativity and new ideas coming in, and whilst staff didn’t know it at the time we were able to see what time what time their turned their office phone on and logged into the server and, on average, it was the time that they would leave the house to begin their commute, so there was an average of two hours extra per day being worked.

Yes, we repeated the exercise during the games themselves and whilst there was a general reduction of business activity across many parts and sectors of the UK during the games and we definitely benefited from this decision.

We have invested very heavily in cloud based applications to enable this to work seamlessly, our cloud based phone system means that regardless of where the staff member is sitting – Canary Wharf, deepest Essex or in my case recently Washington – as long as it is plugged into a Broadband line it will ring and react identically. Other staff members can see when it is on, when it is engaged, can transfer calls as though they were sitting feet away, and the office-wide voicemail system tuns identically and is backed up in the cloud.

All stall now have laptops and we have moved to Google Business Apps for email and traditional data storage, which each member of staff having 100GB of space.

Our contact database runs on the SalesForce platform as does some bespoke applications that we have had developed for Trends Research surveys and email newsletter management for our magazines and marketing solutions.

We would have lost a great team member recently if we had not taken this route, as the financial controller for Trends Research, who after giving birth to her first child, felt unable to return to work which involved a one and a half hour commute both ways.

That wasn’t a problem as that company runs it’s accounts on KashFlow and when linked to our booking system and by either emailing or using viapost to mail invoices and statements it doesn’t matter where she is! Plus as a cloud based system, if I want to pull up a report I don’t have to go to her desk and ask her to do it and hang around the printer for it to pop out, I log in and do it myself in seconds. The only thing she can’t do is bank cheques, but we have a process for that.

If you’re concerned about productivity or accountability, have clear ground rules that apply to employees working from home. For example, presence in meetings is still expected. If you have or want to introduce conference or video calling this is easily done and very cost effectively.

Phone calls, voicemails and emails need the same level of responsiveness as one would expect from those working in the office. Across the Capital Business Media group of companies, we use instant messenger linked to both our phone system and SalesForce Chatter to communicate, and it is a requirement that a work from home employee be signed into the system so they are accessible.

Simply put: This is a day away from the office, not a day to ignore the office. Employees are expected to participate even if not present.

So how do you quantify if home or flexible working is for your business? With many roles this is easy to quantify. It might be the number of calls a customer service representative handles in the office vs. when working from home.

Our Trends Research staff do a lot of report writing for our customers and there was a marked improvement in the report progress completed at home versus in office. In fact so much so, that our analysts roles are now home based and they only come into the office for meetings. The same is in fact true of some of the digital team working on Business Matters including this very website.

For other jobs, it may be a judgement call to determine if productivity remains at least consistent or improves. I did find that a productive and effective sales team need to thrive off each other and the sales target looming large on the whiteboard above their heads, and our creative studio, with their 30″ monitors, scanners and photo libraries also need to remain office based.

Allowing employees the flexibility to work from home at least one day a week, and more with others, also helps solve the problem you have when growing a company as bums on seats, the desks, all of the hidden never calculated costs that goes into taking on additional staff is either reduced or removed.

Home working also reduces your company’s carbon footprint, which is an essential requirement when you are tendering for local or central government projects or work from large organisations.

Home and flexible working also increases employees’ quality of life, and since we have been operating this system our staff retention rate has increased to over 90 per cent.

Know when it’s not working.
Managers need to be flexible and adjust their management style. A micro-manager may not embrace the idea of not seeing people at their desks and may need some coaching on how to loosen the reins and trust their employees to get the job done.

I used to be a terrible micro-manager and obsessive about detail, but by choosing systems and procedures carefully you can actually get more detailed data and at an instant. Just moving from an Act database and external mailing system to an integrated SalesForce application saw our capital expenditure cost repaid in three months. That was 18 months ago…

If some of the roles are non-client facing, but deadline driven the results are in deadlines still being maintained and the work produced at the same consistent standard. Working with the founder of a fashion company I have invested in, we changed the company ethos and he now spends at least two days out of the office working either from home or at one of two members clubs the company joined and sales have risen as he is seeing, and being seen by more clients whilst also being able to gain energy and inspiration from his surroundings and not the same four walls of his office and the staff on the payroll.

What I try to impress on entrepreneurs and fellow business owners is that home and flexible, when handled effectively, can, and will, give your company a competitive advantage. In addition to boosting productivity, it can also be an important recruiting and retention tool to differentiate your company from your competition.


Richard Alvin

About Richard Alvin

Richard Alvin is founder of private equity company Audere Capital which has a number of investments across the media and fashion sectors. Entrepreneur of the year in 2014 Richard is also Group MD of Capital Business Media and director of award winning PR company Brighter Comms, he is regarded as one of the UK's leading experts in the SME sector and an active angel investor and advisor to new start companies in addition to being an advisor to Save Our Business the U.S. based business advice television show.