Home is where the work is

Flexibility in the workplace can create happier staff who get more done.

Мarissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo, sparked quite a row with her recent ban on working from home.

One Irish businessman who would disagree with her diktat is Barry Rice of ShutterCo, a household shutter designer. The family business, set up in 2006, employs 10 people. Half of them work on the factory floor; the other half can, more or less, work from wherever they like.

“Production staff have to be onsite, obviously, and we like to have one or two in the office overseeing things during the day, but other than that people can work from home, on the road, wherever,” said Rice.

He tries to do as much as he can from home, including research and development, accounts and business development. Technology makes home working not only possible but also highly efficient, he says. “For example, prospective customers can send their details to us via our website using Google Docs. I can pick these up at home, contact the customers and, using Google Calendar, see what appointments our sales people have free for a home visit.”

The firm uses Dropbox, a cloud-based way of sharing files, so it does not even need its computers to be networked. Its sales reps do not even have desks in the office.

The business has been profitable since 2010 and revenues grew 20% in the past 12 months. It will soon need to take on more staff.

Rice reckons the opportunity to work from home will be an important part of the benefits package he can offer when recruiting. “All that matters to me is that they are getting results,” he said. “After that, I don’t mind if I never see them.”

Dermot Rice, Barry’s uncle, is managing director of Priority Management, a company that provides training for businesses looking to work “smarter”. He also believes in the value of home working.

He sees Mayer’s move as a step backwards. “Our experience is that people who have the flexibility to work from home do more work, not less, yet still manage to benefit from having a better work-life balance.”

Work-life balance is not such a hot topic as it was before the downturn but is still hugely important to both employees and employers, he has found. If anything, the recession makes it more important. “Employers have no money to give pay rises, so flexibility in relation to working from home has become an important way to keep staff, and a way of giving them recognition.” Certain rules of thumb apply. “It can’t be done for everybody, it can’t be done 40 hours a week, and it can’t be done on an ad hoc basis. To protect yourself and your employees, a written policy is vital.”

Employers reluctant to formalise the practice should bear in mind that technology has probably made many of their “loss of control” fears obsolete already.

For Cathal Divilly, managing director of Great Place to Work, which assesses corporate environments from an employee perspective, home working should be a relatively straightforward issue. “Basically it comes down to whether or not [managers] trust the people working for them,” he said. “If that trust is there, we see more and more people working from home.”