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When Josh Bersin left university, there was a strong divide between work and home. When he went to work, he was at work. When he got home, he was at home. There was no email or voicemail he could check. Back then, working from home meant lugging a briefcase full of papers from the office.
“Now, there are 18 ways for people to reach you,” he says. “The nature of work has changed. It is so easy to work from home, on the road or from Starbucks.”
Mr Bersin is now the chief executive of his own research firm, Bersin & Associates, based in Oakland, California. Many of his employees regularly work from home – in six years, some have never met each other.
Technology has enabled this extreme flexibility in work. Email and speedy WiFi connections have made it easy for people to log in to company systems to work remotely. More recent advancements in instant messaging and video conferencing have facilitated meetings among people in multiple locations.
“It is like you are right there, anyway,” says Rebecca Graham, human resources manager at Enflick, a mobile applications developer in Waterloo, Ontario. All Enflick’s employees are given a MacBook Pro laptop and a smartphone to let them work from anywhere. Because the workspace is open-plan, employees often choose to work from home when they need to concentrate on something without interruption.
Telecommuting is increasingly offered as a perk, to allow employees more control over how they manage their time and balance their work and personal commitments. It is also a way to attract valuable talent that might not otherwise be willing to move.
Albert Lai, chief executive of Big Viking Games, a gaming developer in London, Ontario, Canada, has offered the option at all six of the companies he has launched. One of the main benefits he sees is eliminating commute times. At his last company, based in Silicon Valley, California, some employees were driving an hour each way to and from work.
“I’d rather those people have those hours to spend with their families,” he says, “or spend more time being productive because they didn’t waste time stressed out on the freeway.”
He is a fan of Skype chats and Google Docs for collaborating with people in different offices. He also likes Cisco’s video conferencing, although it is cost-prohibitive for his start-up budget. Instead, he has been using Google+ Hangouts to host video conferences with up to eight people at a time.
In some of his satellite offices, he has experimented with installing video cameras that are always on with views of the engineering desks or even the hallway, to recapture the kinds of ad hoc discussions and serendipitous connections that occur in a shared workspace.
“It is not as fluid as real life, but it is comforting to see colleagues I haven’t seen in a while walking in the hallways and waving hello,” Mr Lai says.
Sometimes, of course, the flexibility can veer to the extreme, with people working too hard and not spending enough time with their families while at home. Mr Bersin says some employees have found it difficult to disconnect.
“Managers need to check in with people often, talk on the phone a lot, coach them, and they need to be very clear about commitments and workload,” he says. “People tend to overload themselves when they work from home.”
Remote working can be a challenge for younger workers at an early stage in their career, Mr Bersin says. It can be more difficult to build a reputation and advance in a company when employees are not in regular face-to-face contact with their supervisors or have the chance to meet other employees who are not in their work group.
And if an employee is not performing well, it can be harder for managers to understand why.
Bosses say managing a remote workforce takes trust. They want to hire the right people and let them arrange the ideal circumstances and schedule for them to do their best.
“At the end of the day, people know what they need to get the job done,” Ms Graham says. “Whether they do it between nine and five, or five and nine, that’s for them to manage.”