Definition, diffusion and benefits
Squashed, squeezed and stressed: if you've struggled into work today and are reading this in a crowded office, surrounded by distracting noises, machines, smells and colleagues, and are dreading your commute home, then you are certainly, literally, not alone. Despite the many advances in remote working technology, latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 87% of us still work primarily at the office.
Of course, as a commuter, you don't need to be told that - especially if you work in London. Of the 3 million people who commute daily on the London Underground, it is estimated as many as 75% had to battle into the office today, despite the strike action that has ground most of the public transport network to a halt.
Why are so many of us continuing to trudge into work? Research by Stanford University has found that remote workers are 13% more productive, take fewer sick days and enjoy a quieter working environment than their commuting colleagues.
No wonder a survey of business owners by Virgin Media Business recently predicted that 60% of office-based employees will regularly work from home by 2022. A separate survey by Office Angels found a third of employees think commuting will be unheard of by 2036.
Yet anyone left bruised and battered by their journey to work today could be forgiven for wondering whether the supposed remote working revolution is just a load of hype. What is stopping the majority of employees from working from home?
Lack of trust
The main reason most employers aren't in favour of home-working is because they don't trust their workforce, according to Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School. "They'll never say that, but that's what it's about. Managers want people in the office because they want to see their little empires there in front of them," he says. "It's totally about trust, and the incompetence of managers who don't know how to manage people remotely."
Phil Flaxton, chief executive of Work Wise UK, agrees: "The fear factor for many managers is: 'If I can't see you how do I know you are working?' Managers need training on how to assess a home-worker on their output, not their input."
Smaller companies tend to be worse at trusting their employees to work from home than bigger companies, he says, despite senior managers at SMEs potentially having a more friendly and intimate relationship with their workforce. "The MD might say: 'I'm committed to my business and I will get here, so you must get here.' It's autocratic and there's usually a bit of ego in it too."
This lack of trust has a knock-on effect on employees, with more than a quarter believing their performance is primarily measured by the time they spend in the office rather than what they deliver, according to a survey by O2. "Office workers worry that if they're not in the political arena, it might affect their ability to get a promotion," says Cooper. "They feel they need to be visible and that their employer may question their commitment if they work from home."
Office working isn't all bad
One in four of us would accept a reduction in salary if it meant we could work from home, according to Wrike.com, and just under a third would accept a reduction in paid holiday time. But most people do not want to work from home exclusively, says Cooper. "People want social contact. When you work remotely, there's a risk you'll feel isolated socially. People also worry that the infrastructure they need to work at home - their internet connection or their computer - will let them down, or that their family will interrupt them."
"It doesn't suit everyone," Flaxton agrees. "Some would miss the camaraderie of their colleagues, or don't have the means to work from home. But it amazes me to see people still battling into work when there's a transport strike."
Not all jobs can be done from home
Imagine if you turned up at a hospital or a police station and found everyone had chosen to work from home. Clearly, some jobs require your physical presence - whether it's working on an assembly line, driving a vehicle, guarding a prison, fixing a toilet or saving someone's life.
Even in office roles, some employers believe there are things best done face-to-face. "I find that getting my teams of project managers, designers and web developers into the office is always worthwhile," says Jim McCall, MD of digital agency The Unit. "Teams need to be in daily contact and nothing beats physically sitting and reviewing work together to gauge people's initial reactions and true thoughts. Teams will also have 'stand-ups' every day, using agile boards [white boards with columns and tasks] that workers need to physically interact with."
Of course, the technology to have face-to-face meetings over the internet (or even use an agile board, albeit a virtual one) has been around for years, and has become more familiar to us. Skype and Facetime are widely used, as are tools that allow employees to access shared documents and drives over the internet.
However, despite the technology being available, not all employers are willing to pay to take advantage of it. Video conferencing involving people in three or more locations is a service that, for example, most employers will need to subscribe to. An initial outlay on equipment could be made back, says Peter Birkett, spokesman for IT consultancy adept4. "Costs like real estate and office overheads are significantly reduced when flexible working is introduced. But the greatest benefit of all is the improved morale and productivity that comes with an investment in mobile technology."
At the moment, only parents have the legal right to request flexible working. But from June, every employer will have to consider requests from all employees after 26 weeks' service. Requests can be still be refused on 'business grounds' but reasons will have to be given and could be challenged by an employee.
The remote working revolution may take off yet. Something to think about when you're stuck on a crowded platform this evening ...