Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Productivity means knowing when to switch off

Published 21 December 2012 05:36, Updated 11 February 2013 07:29

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Productivity means knowing when to switch off

Working endless hours at home doesn’t necessarily equate to improved productivity. Photo: Phil Carrick

Whenever new research comes out on the productivity benefits of working at home, there is invariably an announcement that homebodies work longer hours than their colleagues in the office.

In a triumphal tone, pro-flexibility researchers tell us that people who avoid a commute put the extra time into their work – as if that is a good thing.

That misses the whole point of flexible working. People want to work from home so they get more time to put into their personal lives, not to stretch the working day even longer.

Working longer hours at home is not a win, it is not even productive. To be more productive, you should be able to do better work in the same time.

According to the Australian managing partner at consultancy Veldhoen + Company, Luc Kamperman, a major and emerging problem with home working is that people no longer know when to switch off.

“People are spending more time on work when they do have the opportunity to work from wherever,” he says.

“The bigger challenge is: Where do you stop your working day? In most cases, people are over-working.”

The fact that Veldhoen + Company is grappling with this problem is significant. The Netherlands-based consultancy is a pioneer of activity based working (ABW), which encourages remote working by abolishing the concept of people having their own desks.

In Australia, it introduced the concept to Macquarie Bank in Sydney.

Kamperman recalls that two years after introducing flexible working to the Interpolis insurance company in the Netherlands, employees were complaining that they were not sure when they had delivered enough for the day.

They may have taken some time off to go down the road to get some milk, but then felt guilty and compensated by putting more time into the work.

“The challenge is to know what is private time and what is working time,” says Kamperman.

This is especially the case when a working day is split by having to work with different time zones. This means people having to get up in the night to take conference calls or reply to emails, juggle work with breakfast or head off to the home office after dinner.

Kamperman says, in this case, people have to be explicit about when they will be available and be firm about when they expect to be left alone.

The company also took the extraordinary step of hiring coaches to visit people in their homes if they worked away from the office at least one day a week.

“It was quite a big program to put in place to introduce smarter ways of working, rather than harder ways [of working],” says Kamperman.

It was also some reassurance for their managers who were worried that although their people were meeting their targets, they didn’t know how their people were achieving them.

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