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Self-regulation is the key to productive home-working

10 Jun 2017 By Ian P Buckingham

Ian P Buckingham discusses new research that should pave the way for more of us to ditch the commute and work more efficiently outside the confines of the office

The concept of a rush hour is a crazy anachronism. Why, oh why, do so many organisations insist on forcing miserable work patterns on the people they employ, creating twice-daily migrations of human flesh crammed into crowded metal vehicles – often in conditions that even migrating wildebeest herds would reject?

I accept that certain groups of shift workers and customer service staff need to clock in and off at a specified time. But is it still necessary for the vast majority to have to sign up to that product of inherited lazy thinking: the cliché of the 9-5?

The bigger issue is surely not how modern workers hit their contracted hours, but how they achieve their agreed objectives, and how they actually escape from work and reenergise given that the omnipresent corporate umbilical smartphone makes it increasingly hard to switch off.

Yet despite the logic, insecurity seemingly persists when it comes to trusting paid employees to work, even occasionally, from home. The fear is that without the constant monitoring of someone in a managerial position, employees are allegedly more likely to shirk than to shine.

A fresh study, however, suggests that job performance when working from home is, on average, at least as productive as working from an office base – and probably costs a lot less. But it is dependent upon self-regulation and empowered decision-making rather than managerial control.

Nick van der Meulen of the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, gathered data from 1,450 employees at four public and private organisations that practise working from home to assess the best ways to maximise performance. Participants were asked a series of questions, which covered the frequency of communication with their manager, the extent to which they work from home, manager trust, job performance and the manager/employee relationship.

Van der Meulen suggests something many of us have realised for some time now: "The boundaries of the office structure have changed and with it management has had to shift its approach. The results of our survey showed that managers need to offer trust and freedom to get the most from their employees in return. Any failure by managers to offer this was found to be highly detrimental."

There are learnings to be taken from this statement with regard to the manager/employee relationship in the office. But applied specifically to situations where people work from home, or outside the office, the survey suggests that self-determination or autonomy within a framework of clear objectives and expected outcomes, accompanied by excellent communication between employees and managers, is the recipe for success.

Work patterns in general are evolving rapidly and the nature of the actual and emotional contract between employer and employee will have to shift accordingly. This will call for a more complex and adaptable relationship between managers and tele/remote workers in particular, especially those working primarily from home.

Remote working isn't for everyone, and does have its drawbacks and challenges. But this study at least debunks the notion that non-office workers shirk, suggesting that they actually put in longer hours and, on average, perform just as well as those who operate exclusively from expensive offices stacked with overheads and peculiar rituals.

There’s plenty of food for thought here, especially for HR directors and CEOs who are inadvertently clogging the highways and byways with grumpy commuters – many of whom could be putting the time and energy wasted on the commute to much more productive use, and probably would if given half the chance.

Ian P Buckingham is a business transformation executive and coach, and is the author of Brand Engagement and Brand Champions

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