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Q&A: Will flexible and remote working replace the nine-to-five?

In today's world, the nine-to-five job no longer holds the weight it once did. Many organisations have embraced the idea of allowing their employees to work more flexible hours and some even allow them to work remotely from their homes.

As this trend has continued to gain popularity among employees, I spoke with Piriform's (opens in new tab) Chief Legal Officer, Victoria Dimmick, in regard to how organisations can accommodate employees interested in flexible and remote working and how this movement will affect our society as a whole.

What size and type of organisations are currently the most open to flexible work hours or allowing employees to work remotely?

Whilst flexible and remote working has become more commonplace across businesses as a whole, this varies significantly once broken down by organisation type, size and industry.

Modern technology has made flexible working practices more achievable than ever and although determined by many factors, what lies at the heart of it is whether the employer views remote working as beneficial to them as their employees. Some employers view a shift in working practices as a “nice” idea in theory, but something that wouldn’t necessarily work for them. However, should organisations take flexible working requests seriously and make remote working part of their culture, there is a two-fold positive effect they can benefit from, regardless of their size. Firstly, employers gain access to a much wider talent pool who may be looking for flexible practices as a given in their new job, Secondly, employees’ attitudes and loyalty towards their employer is positively affected as a result of their increased work/life balance.

Some might say that the ability to work flexibly is restricted by the nature of the employee’s day-to-day responsibilities at work. In some cases, such as client meetings, it could prove difficult, but with the rise in multi-channel communications in the workplace, this isn’t necessarily a given, with Skype and Google Hangouts proving great for voice and video communications.. Global organisations work across different time zones, meaning meetings are often not face-to-face anyway.

Equally, in a smaller business where five employees are used to sitting in an office together, morale and productivity could be dependent on a “bums-on-seats” mentality. Ultimately, unless employees are asked what they value in terms of workplace benefits, as well as the organisation being open to trying new ways of working to meet their requests they will never know. More often than not, happy employees leads to greater productivity, and if both employer and employee are prepared to be flexible, it could be hugely beneficial to the company overall.

An organisation’s attitude towards flexible working isn’t really denoted by its size or (in a categorical sense) its type but instead its openness to trying to find a happy, talented and productive workforce. There may be, however, a natural lean towards flexible working in global organisations and some industries like tech, where, as is the case for us at Piriform, Skype meetings are the norm.

What are the hurdles standing in the way of businesses that wish to allow their employees to work remotely from a security standpoint?

As more and more business interactions move outside the walls of the office, securing corporate resources can become a challenge, especially in light of the recent BYOD (bring your own device) trend. IT departments need to provide adequate access controls to employees using its internal and cloud-based systems to minimise data security risk.

Putting a few simple measures in place can drastically reduce this risk, including the ‘principle of least access’ rule (and read-only where possible), to deny any potentially harmful installations. Segregating access points by profile (roles, duties and functions) also helps limit what users can access. A strict no-sharing policy for all employees should be enforced or some physical restrictions applied, such as 2FA (Two-Factor Authentication) or lock down to machine or IP address level.

Whatever measures or policies are put in place, the secret ingredient of user access control is to find a balance between risk and productivity. User accounts and control access should be effectively managed alongside proactive monitoring for inappropriate user behaviour.

It is best practice for firms to ensure that employees working remotely, who have access to confidential or sensitive files do not download these to their home computer. Similarly, companies should ensure these employees access the company servers via an encrypted VPN or remote desktop connection, so the materials never leave the company’s domain.

Any solution to manage user access must also address the human factor and be underpinned by stringent employee contractual obligations to prohibit employees from performing any actions that may put the company and its data at risk.

What devices and software will be used by organisations to let their employees work remotely?

When working flexibly, technical resource underpins most employee’s ability to do their job well. The devices and software used when working from home or in a remote location must be as adequate as those used on premise to allow them to perform at the same level. When employees are using a home PC to perform business tasks, employers should assess the hardware spec and take into account any potential security risk. For this reason, many organisations would rather arm their employees with a laptop and phone to carry from desk to door.

When working remotely, the employee needs to be equipped to perform their day-to-day role, where additional software can be used to ensure devices run at peak performance and keep employees working efficiently - whatever their location. For companies without 24/7 IT support, it is critical that employees are working on clean, stable devices to minimise any downtime. Optimisation software like CCleaner Business Edition will ensure all company devices operate at their fastest, have improved stability and an improved lifespan; antivirus is another obvious consideration.

Many companies already utilise various SaaS platforms for their everyday communication, project and task management and collaborative requirements, so the ability to extend the workforce beyond the four walls of the office is now the easiest it’s ever been. SaaS tools such as Trello, Aha, Slack, Jira, Zendesk and Intercom can help employees manage projects from wherever they are. It’s important to note, however, when using SaaS tools to integrate them throughout all relevant areas of the business, as uptake from those who work remotely only renders them almost useless.

How will remote work and flexible hours change our daily commutes and will it lead to a shift in urban / rural populations?

An increase in flexible working practices would undoubtedly make commutes easier as populations in large cities are expanding at a rate which many feel public transport can’t keep up with. Flexible working practices allow people to avoid the ‘rush hour’ and with widespread implementation, has the potential to make a comfortable commute for everyone a reality. Paying for off-peak fares when travelling to work would help ease any financial strain as the cost of living rises irrespective of inflation across employees’ pay packets.

A quicker and more cost-effective commute into a city-based job could make moving further out of the urban sprawl a viable and tempting prospect for some. Remote working can cut out the stress, time impact and cost of a commute increasing productivity and a happier workforce.

Will employees feel as much a part of their organisation if they work remotely or have flexible hours?

If employers invest in their resources, company culture and communication styles, all employees – whether working flexibly, remotely or on premise – should feel equally part of their organisation. Employees should do their best to ensure that the use of tools which aid remote working, such as Skype, is widespread and used by all employees, regardless of their location and working hours.

An effort should be made by the company to hold meetings, whether in person or electronically, at times which allow employees not usually in the office to attend and where they can’t, loop them in. This is also true for more socially oriented events - a breakfast catch-up for some can be as useful as a post-work pint for others.

Inclusive flexible working practices need to be adhered to by the employer as much as by the employees to ensure that everyone feels the benefit of such changes.

Image Credit: Gpointstudio / Shutterstock

After getting his start at ITProPortal and then working with the TechRadar Pro team for the last several years, Anthony is now the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches to how to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. When not writing, you can find him tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.