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How to capitalise on the work/life blend trend

How to capitalise on the work/life blend trendFor many, work/life balance is an elusive dream. Australians increasingly find themselves extending their business day into their home life. Many blame the rise of mobile technologies but the truth is that any imbalances are not due to the tools at our disposal, but the way we use them.

The trend towards work/life blending is maturing. Management and human resources professionals, along with the technologies that are enabling a more flexible work environment, are now becoming aware of how to ensure that technology can improve work/life balance, rather than shackle us to the office.

This means that employees don’t have to choose between work and life.  Rather, they can opt to blend the two in an effort to increase their own personal productivity, resulting in a happier and more contented lifestyle. This is particularly important for small businesses that need to fully empower their staff.

Why the trend?

There are a number of changes that are driving this trend. A Gen Y workforce has changed employee needs. These Millenials were brought up alongside the internet. Business owners are now expected to meet the technology needs of this generation of workers and their increased desire for workplace flexibility. A research report released this year by Citrix Online titled Worldwide Workplace: The Web Commuting Imperative, found that 16 percent of Australian workers and 17 percent of small business owners would give up five percent of their salary to work from home one-to-two days a week. This is evidence of a shift in employee needs.

The current economic climate has also meant that cost-cutting is at the forefront of small business owners’ concerns, presenting the perfect environment for remote working as businesses struggle to do more with less.

The common factor in all of the above is the emergence of easy-to-use new tools and technologies that enable communication and collaboration with co-workers, partners, prospects and customers–anyone, anywhere, anytime.

For many small businesses, especially those in the service and professional industries, web commuting may be the make or break strategy for success as we move out of the global financial crisis. Just under 50 percent of Australian small business owners say offering flexible hours is the most practical and essential ingredient of a successful business in the future, yet many lack the tools, resources and knowledge in place to successfully implement remote working strategies.

Steps to achieve a work/life blend

A virtual workplace is known under a number of guises: telecommuting, teleworking or web commuting. To help get you started, here are some common sense guidelines to help businesses make the shift to virtual working for some or all of their employees:

Step 1: Determine the needs

It is critical to understand strategic business benefits your organisation can realise from implementing a virtual work environment. Equally important is evaluating employee thoughts and opinions to ensure a win-win situation before making any changes. An informal survey can reveal concerns and issues, as well as the level of interest among workers, and focus groups can go in-depth to explore benefits and drawbacks.
Another consideration is which job roles are suitable for remote work and which are not. For example, call centre reps and sales teams are typically well-suited to working remotely, while manufacturing, R&D and retail employees are usually required to work at designated locations.

To identify possible business benefits, you should look at current and future needs for:

  • Talent that may not be available locally
  • Staff increases beyond the capacity of existing facilities
  • Geographic expansion requirements
  • Enhanced customer relationships in dispersed markets
  • Facilities cost reduction

Step 2: Go online and do some research

Many industry experts, as well as organisations that have adopted remote working, offer tips and advice on the best way to succeed. Useful resources might include:

  • Not-for-profits that have studied this trend
  • Consultants that help companies examine the viability of having some employees, and perhaps entire functions and departments, located off-site or altogether virtually
  • Government agencies that can offer research and assistance
  • Online resources such as www.teleworkaustralia.net.au
  • Social networking sites such as www.linkedin.com have groups of people and experts that are willing to share their stories and offer suggestions
  • Vendor web sites should not be overlooked as a good source of information.

Step 3: Evaluate the technologies

Using the best technologies is critical to effective remote work. Relying only on email and phone can limit productivity and inhibit interaction. Currently, there are many low-cost, simple-to-use technologies that offer greater functionality and, most importantly, closer collaboration. For example, web conferencing tools make it easy to hold online meetings where all participants can view and collaborate on documents, demos and other materials in real time. Other solutions ideal for virtual working include:

  • Secure, remote access over the web to the employee’s company computer
  • Remote technical support to resolve employee computer issues quickly
  • Webinar solutions to conduct staff training or hold large meetings
  • Smartphones such as BlackBerrys
  • High quality, affordable audio conferencing services
  • Online disks and file storage, to enable staff to share documents
  • Web-based shares calendars, tasks lists, wikis and discussion groups.

Step 4: Set policies and guidelines

The virtual workplace, like any other work environment, requires guidelines and oversight to prevent abuses and protect both the company and the employee. Making this shift represents a new way–a web-enabled way–of approaching business operations, and it calls for a set of terms and conditions to be outlined between employees and their managers. Policies should cover the following topics:

  • Eligibility to participate: consider job role, length of service, performance history, etc.
  • Home office setup and security, including equipment, internet access and phone service
  • Work schedule, including how many days/week will be spent working remotely
  • Managerial oversight and evaluation
  • Reimbursement for expenses.

Step 5: Set benchmarks and measure

A formal evaluation at the end of a given time period–six months or a year–is important to identify any issues, make adjustments and show management how the program is benefiting both the company and the participants. Evaluate the impact of your virtual workplace. A meaningful comparison requires benchmarks at the beginning of the program against which improvements can be measured. Criteria may include:

  • Current costs of overheads, equipment, power and travel vs. subsequent savings
  • Productivity (such as number of customer sales calls per month) before and after
  • Recruitment and retention statistics before and after
  • Employee satisfaction and morale as measured by initial and follow-up surveys
  • Growth rate in revenue, sales, markets and geographies.

By following these steps to assess, implement, oversee and measure your program, you can optimise the benefits of remote work for your organisation and your employees.

–Joseph Sweeney is an analyst for IBRS and member of the Worldwide Workplace: Web Commuting Imperative Council.

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Joseph Sweeney

Joseph Sweeney

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