IT Pro Panel: The loneliness of the long-distance worker

How CIOs can manage and support remote staff

One of the biggest and most fundamental shifts to happen to the modern workplace is the rising popularity and acceptance of remote working. Rather than working from an assigned desk or cubicle within an office, employees are now choosing to work from coffee shops, co-working spaces or from home. Developments in mobile technology and business software have made it more viable than ever, and businesses are now catching on to the value it can add to their organisations.

The benefits of flexible working are well documented - both for a business' staff and for its overall health - but many organisations have yet to fully embrace it as a working model, and there are still some challenges associated with managing remote and flexible employees. Issues like making sure remote workers feel supported and included can be a challenge, as can making sure that collaboration and communication can happen effectively regardless of where employees are operating from.

For this month's IT Pro Panel discussion, we spoke to our panellists to find out how their organisations tackle the issue of flexible working, and the role IT can play in making sure that flexible working programmes are a success.

Flexibility or bust

Flexible working is now a firmly established trend and for an increasing number of people, it's becoming an essential factor when determining where they want to work. According to Domino's UK CISO Paul Watts, many younger workers in particular will actually turn down roles with companies that aren't offering them the option to work flexibly.

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"The emerging generations do want to work differently," he says, "and are making that very clear when applying for roles; questions on work/life balance are front and centre for millenials and beyond, for sure."

Part of this trend is that workers now have the resources to do their jobs remotely; most people own a laptop, and many jobs can be done with little more than a web browser and basic document editing tools. Contrast this with previous decades, when consumer laptops were still rare and expensive, and many jobs required specialist desktop software.

"15 years ago, I was working for a FTSE100 company. They provided desks, printers, filing cabinets and even dedicated broadband. These days, it's expected employees will have stuff at home, or be less fussy about how they work," says Addison Lee's chief data officer Graeme McDermott. "University is breeding a workforce of people who will work anywhere."

"When I joined the company three years ago, people worked remotely at weekends to suit the company," he says, revealing that although staff worked remotely to meet deadlines, flexible working during business hours was uncommon.

"Wind on three years and we're in a new building with lots of new people who are used to working flexibly - we see 30 to 35% take up and growing."

It's not hard to see why it's on the rise - flexible working gives staff more control over their schedules, giving them more freedom to work in the manner than best suits them. As the founder of CIO On Demand, Patricio Colombo specialises in filling interim CIO positions on a freelance basis and does 90% of his work remotely.

"Working flexibly has allowed me for instance to get more involved with my children and to coordinate better around them with my wife," he says, "something I hadn't been able to do before. I'm happier, they are happier, and the job gets done."

McDermott and Watts also echo these sentiments, espousing the morale-boosting benefits of being able to do the school run in the mornings or work from home to focus on a project. Unsurprisingly, the panellists also noted that their overall productivity levels go up when working flexibly, and they usually end up putting in more hours than they do at the office.

"I'm not at a desk having to show I'm doing stuff for a fixed period, which also means I end up probably doing more hours for the client than I end up charging for, as I work when I can/need to rather than when I must," Colombo says. "I think flexible working is a vehicle for people to shift their focus from keeping a seat warm for a set number of hours to fulfilling a role and actually achieving measurable results."

"I've definitely been guilty of [keeping a seat warm] in the past," agrees McDermott. "I'm working in London now and commuting has made me more conscious of lost time. I've had to work from my parents over the last three years... My boss has always been understanding as he knows I will be there when he needs me."

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Flexible working relies on a high degree of trust between managers and staff, but employers must also be vigilant to potential abuses of that trust. "When I challenged someone on a piece of analytics that I thought should take three days not ten, I was told I didn't understand," McDermott says. "When I had IT verify Office 365 usage, it showed they were not working flexibly when they said. They broke my trust and I withdrew their flexible status."

"At the end of the day, you must deliver what you said you would," Colombo adds, "as trust is hard gain and easily lost with these things."

People and policies

However, despite the growing adoption of flexible working practises, many organisations have not yet established a formal corporate policy around flexible working. In fact, none of our panellists' organisations have a flexible working policy in place.

"In my last permanent role, there was no policy as such but the chairman liked people to be at the office, so working from home was tricky and only in exceptional circumstances rather than the norm," Colombo says. "Today I see a lot more flexible working in the organisations I'm working with, but don't yet see formal policies in place to cater for the details, such as times, location, equipment, et cetera."

"We don't have an official policy, and it has led to inconsistencies across the company due to managerial experience and trust," McDermott adds.

"We don't currently have a policy but I understand we are working towards that," says Watts. "I agree that without a corporate baseline you end up with a lot of inconsistent practice across the business that can lead to difficulties."

One of the most commonly-cited benefits to having a clearly-defined policy regarding flexible working is to standardise the tools used by remote workers, in order to avoid the spread of 'shadow IT' as individual teams start using their own apps and services to collaborate. According to our panellists, however, this isn't necessarily a major issue.

"We seem to have every collaboration tool under the sun," McDermott says. "It's not the tool, it's the people and attitude that matters."

As McDermott alludes to, one of the most important things when managing remote employees is ensuring that they don't become disconnected from the wider business.

"I remember this being a big problem back in the 90's when I was doing offshore consultancy work," Watts recalls. "The team became gradually disengaged from the business as they were not getting regular engagement with the core business and it had an impact when they needed to re-integrate. Just because you collaborate on a tooling level you need the personal interaction to be at a sensible level as well."

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"I inherited two people who spent 80% of their time working from home, but had become 100% as the manager didn't speak to them," McDermott adds. "As a result they became order-takers and deliverers but lost touch with the business and trading through not hearing what was going on or how the area was changing. Email is fine but it needs face-to-face."

How to keep remote workers secure

Another major challenge associated with flexible working is security. When employees start working from locations outside the corporate network, they take corporate devices and data with them, increasing the risk of inadvertently exposing them to malicious threats. In order to prevent remote workers from turning into unwitting security risks, Watts advises that staff need to be aware that security policies apply wherever they're working from.

"This relies on a strong culture of security across the workforce," he explains, "and an understanding of how to use collaborative off-premise tooling in a safe way. Also strong Information Governance; perhaps collaborating on that 'secret' document with one of you in Starbucks and the other in a hotel ain't such a good idea?"

McDermott shares similar concerns, noting that data security is a particular worry if you're going to be handling data in a public environment. "I asked IT for a privacy screen and was clearly the first," he says. "If flexible is any time, any place then you need to educate and remind staff about info and hardware security."

Despite these concerns, all our panellists acknowledged that flexible working is very much here to stay. The benefits it offers are well-documented, and all of our panellists have firmly embraced it within their own organisations.

"We are currently rolling out Office 365 and are already seeing great benefit from its use," Watts explains. "We've a community of Digital Workplace Champions who feed back case studies and stories as to how the technologies and ways of working have allowed us to solve particular business problems, and have used that knowledge and wisdom to further evolve our flexible working propositions."

"We were not an organisation that traditionally supported the concept but as the world around us has changed and the need for flexibility increased we have embraced technologies such as mobile and cloud to allow the capability to do business to become as dynamic and agile as possible."

If you're a senior IT decision-maker and you'd like to apply to be part of the IT Pro Panel, please email panel@itpro.co.uk.

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