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Sarah Jackson: It's not just about homeworking

Thursday 31 July 2014

In our blog series on homeworking, Sarah Jackson, Chief Executive of Working Families, talks about homeworking and other family friendly work practices.

Sarah Jackson

Sarah is an acknowledged expert on work-life balance campaigning and culture change. In 2007 she was awarded an OBE in recognition of her services to Quality of Life issues. She is also a member of the Policy Advisory Board of the Social Market Foundation and a Fellow of the RSA.

Sarah Jackson

I happen to think that homeworking is only part of the picture - what we are actually talking about is family friendly and flexible working practices that meet both employee and business needs when they are well planned, well run and part of an organisation's culture. The kind of blended practice described so compellingly by Anne Sharp in her previous blog on 10 July.

Over the years we have watched the integration of home working into the every day practice of many organisations. The Top Employers for Working Families Benchmark and Awards is the definitive list of UK employers who enable the best quality of work-life balance and career development and two of this years entries standout as showcasing the creative ways in which they consider the wellbeing of their employees and seek to make their workplace an environment that allows people to thrive. Organisations are motivated to move in a family-friendly and flexible direction, neither because it is the right thing to do nor simply as an employee benefit, but because they have understood that the way that the organisation operates and the way that employees want to live need to be closely aligned.

Take the Best for Innovation award winners, the Scottish Government. All jobs now falling vacant in the Scottish Government Department, Housing, Regeneration and the Commonwealth Games Directorate are advertised as location neutral unless there is a strong business case for them to be carried out in a particular location. With locations across the length and breadth of Scotland this was a major step in allowing staff to seek career opportunities and development whilst maintaining their work life balance and ensuring that their families do not have to be uprooted for moves across Scotland in pursuit of a promotion. The initiative also helped towards the Scottish Government's need to operate as a smaller, more flexible organisation within constrained costs. Clear aims from the very start of the initiative mean that success is easy to measure and challenges, if or when they occur, can be addressed. The leaders of this project are under no illusion that without the buy-in of senior staff this initiative would have failed - success is dependant on the support provided to staff by their line-managers.

Commended in the same award category was Informa Business Information for their principles-based approach to flexible working. An office move in 2013 was an opportunity to look at the way that its employees really worked and to use the move as a way of reinvigorating their workforce. To help drive major cultural change and to ensure that the initiatives weren't marred by individual preferences, managers were not allowed to say no to requests for flexible or home-working - a counter-intuitively inflexible approach to flexibility! It works because managers are trained in supporting flexible workers, and teams work together to define their own flex working protocols in order to meet their specific business and personal needs. The result has been a significant increase in homeworking - some permanent, but the majority, including the CEO, choosing blended patterns.

Both of these organisations, and many others that Working Families deal with on a daily basis, understand that for flexible working to be a success its vitally important not to be constrained by definitions. Homeworking, compressed hours, term time, part time, hot desking, these simply unhelpfully label how someone structures their working day. Rather we should embrace any form or pattern of work which enables personal obligations and organisational objectives to be achieved.

The Acas homeworking guidance is so very welcome because any form or pattern of flexible working will have particular practical or technical issues that will need to be carefully thought through and resolved for it to be a success. There needs to be clear objectives and transparent performance expectations to monitor progress and frequent communication is vital. Not only between manager and staff members, but between colleagues and between teams so that everyone fully understands their own and other's roles in achieving the goals of the organisation whilst ensuring their own wellbeing.

Read other blogs in our homeworking series

Anne Sharp: Holding on or letting go? Learning to trust the homeworker

Rebecca George: Homeworking - the value and the risks

Richard Fox: Acas - your flexible friend

Homeworking information from Acas

Acas guidance on homeworking

pdf icon Homeworking - a guide for employers and employees [272kb]


Add a comment+
  • Posted by David Webb, Acas writer/editor  |  5 August 2014, 2:15PM

    Hi Sarah,

    A very interesting blog, particularly concerning some Scottish government jobs being advertised as “location neutral”, unless, of course, there is a business case for them being carried out at a particular location. That seems to be a further step towards promoting homeworking.

    You also rightly say there can be very little sense in people, and families, having to needlessly uproot if they succeed in getting a new job or promotion if the role can be done from anywhere.

    However, I was surprised by the policy of managers in an organisation not being allowed to say ‘no’ to a request to work from home. In such a circumstance, it must be the case that all jobs must be suitable for homeworking. But would it necessarily follow that all the employees would be cut out for homeworking?

    I know all too well from my past, before I joined Acas, that not all staff are suitable for homeworking and in particular remember one case I inherited where the employee simply didn’t have the self-discipline to handle it. Rectifying that turned into something of a black hole.

    Nevertheless, if managers, colleagues and homeworkers all understand from the very beginning what is expected of them – and deliver – homeworking stands a good chance of being a success.

    It is also important to bear in mind that it can be mistakenly believed that other types of flexible working can automatically be a part of homeworking – for example, flexible hours.

    Well, yes, they can, if that is part of the clear and formal arrangement agreed between employer and employee. And, no, they can’t, if for business reasons the employer needs the homeworker to work the same hours as everyone else.

    Thank you for endorsing Acas’ homeworking guidance for employers and employees.

  • Posted by Stewart Gee, Acas  |  31 July 2014, 3:12PM

    Hi Sarah,

    It is great to see so much really positive commentary on homeworking.  Here at Acas we have already seen our new Homeworking Guidance downloaded more than 4,000 times over the last month, proof positive that there is an audience out there which is keen to understand more about the topic.  

    In reading your blog, I found myself thinking about two employment contexts, one where an employer with staff based in one location decides to introduce homeworking, and one where an employer sets out to recruit home-working staff from scratch. 

    In both cases there is the potential to improve productivity and engagement, and a critical need to ensure managers understand and are equipped to support people working away from home, being mindful of the potential for isolation and equipped with strategies for dealing with some of the more difficult management situations at a distance. An advantage for the employer starting from scratch is the option to recruit a body of staff who are best suited to working from home. An employer who is instituting homeworking for a group of staff who work from a fixed workplace is likely to find that while some of their staff will really thrive working from home, others may struggle. Partly this is a need for additional support, but in this situation the blend of homeworking and other flexible working options that you outline can be especially powerful.

    I am fortunate to work with a team including homeworkers, office-based workers, and people who blend the two. Personally, I work from a number of locations at different times, and occasionally put in a day's work from home, but for the vast majority of my working time I am office-based; I enjoy working in proximity to others, appreciate the sociable aspect of working alongside colleagues with a shared interest, and if I am honest, also value the physical demarcation between work and home. However, I know that roughly half of my team function best either working from home or with a blend of home and office working and this has helped in attracting and retaining a great little team writing guidance and producing training materials for Acas staff to deliver.

    All the best,