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Agile working may appear to be a new phenomenon, as this ‘buzzword’ is starting to appear more and more in business and in the media. In fact, it isn’t new at all. Agile is just another way of working, and it has been around for years – although it is gaining popularity, and with good reason.

Some employers see agile working as meaning working from home, but it actually has a wider meaning. Agile working is about utilising the benefits gained from changing work practices, deploying new technologies and creating new working environments.

Historically, the response to the phrase “I’m working from home” would be a snigger and a look of contempt – colleagues of the person working from home tended to view this as a paid day off. Now working from home is much more acceptable, and often viewed as beneficial and productive for all concerned.  Indeed, figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that, in 2014, 4.2 million people spent at least half their working time at home, up from 1.3 million in 1998, confirming that it is very much a more accepted way of working.

Aside from homeworking, other aspects of agile working include flexible hours. It could be, for example, that you agree on a homeworking arrangement with an employee, but rather than having specific contracted hours, the hours they do are flexible to fit in with their work/home life balance. If the employee is a parent collecting a child from school, for example, you may agree that between the hours of 3pm and 4pm they are not available for work, but when all other office staff ‘clock off’ at 5pm this employee is still available to carry out work until 6pm.

Agile working is also about working on the move. Now that smartphones, tablets and laptops are everyday business essentials, your staff can work from almost any destination, and do not necessarily have to come into the office or work at their desk at home.

There are, of course, both advantages and disadvantages to agile working.

One of the main advantages is the improved work/home life balance for staff. Agile can also make significant savings on commute time. It may mean that your employees can start work earlier or finish later rather, than spending time stuck in busy traffic or on sometimes unreliable public transport. A working parent may be able to start work at 8.30am once the school run has been done, rather than then starting the commute and not starting work until 9 or thereafter. Another advantage for employers is that, if you have staff who work from home in the longer term, it may mean that you can reduce the size of your business premises which could be a great cost saving.  For our very eco-friendly clients, home working can also be a great way to make a small change to reducing their carbon footprint – much better to have your employees car on their driveway all day than spending two hours of it burning fuel into the environment, and who knows, it could even mean some staff no longer need vehicles at all!

Of course, there does need to be an element of trust with allowing staff to work from home, but technological advances mean that most portable devices allow you to monitor your staff’s input and output.  Some systems show when staff are ‘online and active’, and if you have the right IT policy in place you are absolutely within your rights to monitor e-mails and internet usage. This is a good indicator as to whether your staff are actually working from home, or if they are out shopping or sat with their feet up watching Wimbledon or Jeremy Kyle!

A further issue for employers to keep an eye on is the potential risk that the employee may feel isolated and dissociated from the company. A lack of social contact or colleague back-up can have a detrimental effect on staff who are working at home. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ can be a very true saying, which needs to be monitored. A good idea is for managers to agree a scheduled day and time each week or month to ring the employee for an update and catch up. It may be that there is nothing formal to discuss, but just touching base with the employee can go a long way for keeping staff morale high.

Another area of concern is that the employee may be constantly ‘switched on’, so you do need to make sure that employees take regular breaks in accordance with the Working Time Regulations. Ensure that a day off means just that. Discourage your employees from giving in to the temptation to ‘log on’ and check work e-mails, as this could have an adverse effect on striking a good work/home life balance.

If, as an employer, you are dubious about homeworking then you could agree to trial this with an employee. Agree on the terms and confirm in writing how long the trial will be for and what the expectations are. If it all goes to plan then you can confirm the agreement as a permanent change to the employee’s contract.

There are a few things to give some consideration to when it comes to agile working, such as expenses. If you agree that the employee’s place of work is from home, you could end up having to pay expenses when you need them to come into the office. It is advised to ensure that the contract states that they may be required to attend the office as and when required so that you can avoid this issue. Also, you may want to consider whether you want to pay any contributions towards the employee’s bills. Their heating and lighting will likely increase, along with their internet usage, so you may see that is it fair and reasonable that you pay towards this too. But bear in mind, there is no legal obligation on you to do so, and arguably, it is fair not to contribute – they are saving money on travel, after all!

Potentially one of the more dangerous elements to home working surrounds the issue of computer security and Data Protection. Again, having policies in place for this helps protect you as an employer. You need to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect computer information relating to your business being used to a detrimental effect. You may want to carry out a risk assessment as to who may have access to the computer equipment, and how and where it will be operated in the home environment. Restrictive Covenants are a contentious area in law, however, if done correctly they can be beneficial in protecting your business and reducing your vulnerability to staff using your data for their own personal gain. Whilst the information available to them is the same whether at home or in the office, it is much easier to print off and/or use any of that information for unsuitable purposes when there is nobody around to see or hear.

In conclusion, it is clear from the above that there are some great advantages to all concerned in allowing an employee to agile work. In today’s society, we can see how an improved work/home life balance means that you have a happier and healthier workforce, so it may be time to give agile a try!

If you have any questions regarding your policy documents or would like advice on agile working, please contact the HR Consultancy team on 01484 439930.