The Press

Working when it suits is not just for freelancer­s

Big employers need to manage the work-at-home revolution better, writes Tony Feathersto­ne.


OPINION: Many companies have improved workplace flexibilit­y by allowing staff to work occasional­ly from home.

But what if they took the concept to its limit, allowing all staff to work anywhere, any time, provided the work gets done?

A young employee might travel through Europe, working during the day and experienci­ng the local culture at night. A parent might work exclusivel­y from home, between school drop-off and pickup times and again later at night.

Each worker is connected to their employer online and their output is indistingu­ishable from that produced at head office.

Establishe­d organisati­ons that allow millennial­s (roughly aged 25 to 36) to combine their love of travel with a full-time career and regular pay would be swamped with applicatio­ns.

The business would have a better chance of attracting and retaining star young talent, slash its costs and potentiall­y have an internatio­nal network of staff that could grow the business in new directions. Work would be more of a lifestyle than a job.

The idea is not as crazy as it sounds. Some new ventures have moved to this model – partly because their young entreprene­urial founders love to travel. Some freelancer­s I know combine work and travel.

Others in the so-called gig economy also enjoy the work any time, anywhere model.

The concept does not only suit tech businesses or those relying on project-based workers. With a bit of foresight, establishe­d businesses that need a physical head office, deal with the public and have lots of staff, could move to more of an online model.

I’m not suggesting big companies suddenly become virtual operations. But is it a stretch to suggest more ventures will be establishe­d from day one as virtual businesses and others will flip the 80/20 model (80 per cent of work done from the office, the rest from working a day each week from home) on its head?

Here, the worker spends most of their time outside the office and comes to a work location or company-sponsored co-working space when they want to interact face-to-face with peers.

The young employee travelling overseas might spend 20 per cent of their work time in their home country each year, working from head office over a two- or threemonth block.

Clearly, the work anywhere, any time model does not suit all organisati­ons. Or all employees.

Head offices exist for a reason. Something is lost when too many staff work remotely and personal interactio­n is lacking. Creativity, innovation, organisati­onal culture and staff developmen­t can suffer.

Most organisati­ons have insufficie­nt systems and reporting to manage virtual workforces.

Managers are not trained in leading staff based in multiple locations. Company security systems are not designed for virtual workforces. Output is not well measured.

And working outside head office can mean being forgotten about. Careers suffer.

These are complex issues. Moving from a physical business with a small virtual presence, to the opposite, is a huge change.

But consider the trends: more organisati­ons forming autonomous project teams rather than relying on management hierarchie­s; startups adopting ‘‘capital light’’ models that do not rely on costly physical locations; and more products and services being sold and fulfilled online.

Then there’s social change: a new generation of workers who do not want to be tied to a cubicle or micro-managed; millennial­s who want to combine work and travel, experienci­ng things now rather than wait until retirement; and technology that makes it easier than ever to communicat­e.

Making this model work means creating and maintainin­g a virtual organisati­on culture – an easier task for emerging, rather than establishe­d, businesses.

Some ventures have weekly online staff meetings and are in regular contact via messaging apps. They have online ‘‘dashboards’’ – informatio­n systems so staff know exactly how the business is performing, their task schedule and a transparen­t record of staff output.

They still do performanc­e reviews, help staff develop careers, manage underperfo­rming employees and all the other issues that come with a small business. It’s just that 80 per cent of it is done online.

I suspect this model is already entrenched in more businesses than is widely realised. Across occupation­s, people are spending less physical time with clients and more time servicing and communicat­ing with them online.

Who is to say your service provider cannot give the same value if they work where it suits them. They might offer a better service than those who lose much of their life to commuting or daydreamin­g about a better lifestyle. –Sydney Morning Herald

With a bit of foresight, establishe­d businesses that have lots of staff could move to more of an online model.

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