Out-Of-Office: Why A 'Work Anywhere' Culture Can Benefit Your Business Remote working delivers improvements in employee health and well-being, productivity, staff retention and overheads.

By Neil Petch

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With three-quarters of UAE employees reporting that a remote and flexible work schedule increases their productivity, entrepreneurs and business owners are increasingly looking at the potential gains of adopting a remote "work anywhere' culture.

And it's a worldwide trend.

According to a recent survey of 25,000 employees across 12 countries by Morar Consulting, 98% state that a "work anywhere' culture has a positive impact on productivity, and business leaders are increasingly warming to the idea. The Work Foundation predicts that by 2020, mobile working by individuals and organizations will reach an adoption level of 70%. But is this just a case of employees taking advantage of mobile technology to make their working life more comfortable, or are there measurable benefits in remote working for employers and clients?

Six benefits of "work anywhere'
Working remotely is good for employees in terms of cutting commuting time and cost and improving work-life balance. But the benefits don't end there. Both employee and employer stand to gain in a number of ways:

1. Job satisfaction: A 2017 survey revealed that 38% of US workers are allowed to work from home at least one day per week, and these employees report much higher levels of job satisfaction than those who don't enjoy the same perk. According to the survey, they are 48% more likely to rate their job as a "10' on the happiness scale, with a score of "10' being the highest. Morar Consulting's The Changing World of Work, which used a significantly higher representative sample, estimates that as many as two-thirds of the global workforce take advantage of the perk.

2. Lower stress: Foregoing the stresses of a time-consuming daily commute, gridlocked roads or travel disruption can contribute to lowering overall stress levels, reducing the risk of illnesses such as hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, and can help improve the overall health, well-being and happiness of your staff. In Dubai alone, hypertension already affects one-fifth of the Emirati population. In the UK, over 50% of office-based employees complain that the daily commute doesn't allow them time to exercise during the week, inevitably leading to increased obesity and hypertension, whilst only 12% of those who work from home make the same complaint.

3. Reduced sick leave: A happier, healthier staff with higher levels of job satisfaction can go a long way to reducing absenteeism. In the UK alone, some 30 days are lost per worker per annum due to sickness absence and underperformance at work, resulting in an estimated loss to the UK economy of GBP 77.5bn per year.

4. Higher productivity: In an independent 2017 report from MindMetre Research, 56% of respondents felt that mobile working helped them concentrate more, while 53% said that it improved productivity. In 2015, an academic study from Stanford University looked at the productivity of selected call centre workers from among the 16,000-strong Shanghai-based travel agency Ctrip, who were offered the chance to work from home. They showed an improvement of 13%. This jump was attributed to a 9% increase in the time they were logged on to take calls because of fewer breaks and no commuting, and a 4% increase in output achieved as a result of the quiet environment of homeworking.

5. Savings on commercial premises: The same experiment at Ctrip achieved savings of approximately USD 2,000 for each homeworker, two-thirds of which came from a reduction in office space. Among smaller organisations, the opportunities for expansion without the accompanying costs of bigger and more expensive commercial real estate can be achieved through a combination of partial remote working and hot-desking. Indeed, as MindMetre reports in its 2017 survey, 51% state that the main driver for allowing remote working is to reduce fixed office costs, with 37% citing a desire to avoid fixed leasing arrangements that hamper their requirement to expand and contract rapidly.

6. Better staff retention: Research from the UK Government's Department for Business Innovation & Skills reports that flexible working leads in some cases to very significant savings in turnover costs and has a positive effect on staff retention. Stanford University's experiment with Ctrip would seem to echo these findings: researchers found that attrition rates at the Chinese travel agency fell by a staggering 50% when compared to the office-based control group.

The downsides and how to manage them
Before you rush into a remote working agreement with your staff, it's important to be aware of the potential disadvantages.

1. Overworking: Detractors refer to flexible working as "shirking from home', assuming that telecommuters do nothing at home but watch daytime TV. In fact, a more common problem is the complete opposite: over-work. Homeworkers often don't know when to stop because the traditional transition from work to personal time –the physical act of leaving the office– is missing. This trap can be avoided by advising your employees to have a dedicated space at home on which they can physically close a door, and to self-impose and adhere to strict working hours.

2. Interruptions and distractions: While studies show an improvement in productivity, working from home can also put productivity at risk. MindMetre Research's study, The Workplace Revolution, reports that background noise at home is a concern for 40% of respondents, with noise and distraction from family, pets, doorbells, washing machines and dishwashers all proving disruptive and also potentially presenting an unprofessional image to business callers. One solution is to insist your staff have a quiet work environment in a secluded part of their home where they won't be disturbed, or work from home only on days when they know they will be free from disturbance.

3. Unreliable communications: Remote working simply wouldn't be an option without the recent rapid advance of technology. But thanks to the widespread availability and relative affordability of fast Wi-Fi broadband and devices such as smartphones and tablets, the opportunities for remote working are growing. However, increased reliance on technology can be a risk, with unreliable broadband and Wi-Fi connections causing delays and embarrassing breakdowns in communications with clients. Here in the UAE, this generally isn't a problem: we have the third-highest internet usage penetration anywhere in the Middle East – over 90% – making the UAE one of the most advanced regions in the world in terms of its broadband market.

Remote working success – which companies are leading the way?
For some pointers as to how to manage a remote team, it's worth taking a look at organisations that are doing it already. One such company, which has fully embraced telecommuting, is the US tech firm Zapier. The company employs an entirely distributed workforce. Its 100-plus employees work remotely out of 13 countries with no premises or headquarters, giving the company virtually unlimited access to talent.

Wade Foster, co-founder of Zapier, notes three key ingredients important for the success of remote work: team, tools and process. The team has to be comfortable to perform remote work and must comprise individuals who know how to write well (in a remote situation, everything is shared via written communication) and they have to have the tools necessary to stay on track.

"In a remote team," says Wade, "you'll need the right tools to make sure everyone stays on the same page and can continue to execute without a physical person standing next to them." Good process provides structure and direction and lets you get work done in the absence of everything else. "Process, at a small company," says Wade, "is more about providing a feedback loop so that you can measure progress for both the company and the people in the company."

Fellow co-founder Mike Knoop points out the simple truth that "less distractions lead to faster work'. And the key to working faster in a remote team, for Zapier at least, is the nature of the distraction and your control over it. "Non-remote work defaults to the highest distraction communication first," says Knoop, "which is in-person. Remote work defaults to the lowest, which is no communication."

And while that may partly explain improved productivity, it doesn't appear to lead to isolation.

Enterprise social networks such as Slack keep distributed or remote workers connected to relevant workflows without the need for time-consuming emails and physical meetings, and video-conferencing allows them to stay connected not just for professional purposes but to develop and maintain social contact with colleagues too.

Is remote working right for my business?
A "work anywhere' culture isn't viable for every organisation across the board, but where it is possible, with careful management of the potential downsides and a structured approach to its implementation, remote working can deliver a significant improvement in employee health and well-being, productivity, absenteeism, staff retention and overheads, as well as access to a much larger talent pool.

With that in mind, is it time to start sending your employees home?

Related: Forty Years And Counting: Servcorp's Long-Serving CEO Alfred George Moufarrige

Neil Petch

Founder and Chairman, Virtugroup

Neil Petch actively assists over 300 entrepreneurs and startups to conceive, plan, and build their businesses on a monthly basis.

After launching Virtuzone as the first private company formation business in the region over 10 years ago, Neil has led the company to set up more than 16,000 businesses, making it the largest, fastest-growing and best-known setup operator in the Middle East.

As the chairman of the holding company, Virtugroup, Neil also leads VirtuVest, an in-house angel investment vehicle; Virtuzone Mainland, a provider of directorship services, corporate sponsorship and facilitator of local Dubai and Abu Dhabi company setups; and Next Generation Equity, a citizenship-by-investment firm. Virtugroup has invested in and supported the growth of multiple companies and delivered passports in over 10 different jurisdictions. Virtugroup also enjoys partnerships with Dubai FDI, the Chamber of Commerce, Dubai Holdings (ARN), VFS, Regus, Etisalat, KPMG, Aramex and Beehive, and has received awards from Arabian Business and Entrepreneur Magazine, among others.

In addition to starting up businesses, Neil has held leadership roles in several companies. He helped establish ITP, the largest media publishing house in the Gulf, which he oversaw growing from two to 600 employees. At ITP, he spearheaded the launch of over 60 digital and print titles, including Time Out, Harper’s Bazaar, Arabian Business, Ahlan and Grazia.

As Managing Director of ENG Media, Neil launched the Coast FM radio station and numerous magazines, including MediaWeek. For the last seven years, Neil has also served as Chairman of GMG, the world’s first interbank financial brokerage based out of Dubai, with offices in DIFC and London. Due to his extensive knowledge and expertise, Neil has been appointed a member of the ‘Ease of Banking’ panel organised by the Chamber of Commerce.

Having lived in over a dozen countries and with a career spanning over 25 years in the UAE, Neil has the ability to merge astute cultural insight with fresh thinking, leveraging his seasoned business acumen, intuition and black book to repeatedly bring ideas to living, breathing success stories.

Neil has appeared in BBC (Dubai Dreams) and ITV (Piers Morgan) features on Dubai, as well as programmes on BBC World and Sky. He has participated as a judge on the radio programme Falcons’ Lair, an entrepreneurship reality show loosely based on the BBC production Dragons’ Den, as well as a similar TV competition hosted by MAD Talks. He now hosts Starting Up on Dubai Eye 103.8FM, the only national weekly show for the startup community in the world’s startup capital.

Neil also lends his in-depth market insight to fellow entrepreneurs and helps cultivate Public Private Partnerships as a Task Force Member of the Advisory Council, a coalition of key decision-makers and prominent movers of the UAE business landscape, led by EMIR and the Ministry of Economy.

He is also a regular speaker, panelist, and economic commentator, specialising in the SME sector.

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