benjamin alexander smith

Work From Home During the Snow

Snowfall is a fairly regular occurrence. In the UK we are graced by snow for around 10 days per year. Fewer days of snow may affect those near the coast, or many more may affect those in the Pennines, but it is a safe bet that you will enjoy a nice coating of snow for at least a few days per year.

The reactions to snow are mixed. For some, they fear the hassle it brings: disruption to travel, to deliveries, and to daily routine. It brings wet carpets and cold ears; school closures and icy pavements; slippery surfaces and soggy trainers. For others, snow is a blessing. It brings snowballs and sledging; quality time with the kids; days free from the commute and free from the office. And for many, it means a day off. But just because it disrupts routine, why should it destroy productivity?

Snow seems to be the only form of weather which can reliably bring British business to its knees. After the recent snow, absence management organization FirstCare estimated that nearly 11 per cent of the UK workforce stayed at home—the highest figure ever recorded for December. Meanwhile, The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimated that this spell of absenteeism costs us over £1 billion per day. That’s over 26% of Britain’s daily GDP.

The key question for me is not why 11% of the UK workforce stays at home, but why staying at home carries such a high cost to businesses. Why does a little snow (or even a lot of snow) cost us 13% of our daily GDP?

In 2009, it was estimated that 73% of the UK GDP came from the services sector. In today’s world, services means far more than tourism and transport: it also means finance and business services, many of which are essentially virtual. What do I mean by “virtual” services? I’m referring to services which at their core do not directly relate to physical products or the movement of materials. They relate to concepts, to ideas and to important information, yet they do not require a physical backdrop. These are services like accounting, advertising, design, programming and support. To an extent, even telesales, recruitment and many real estate services fall into this category.

ONS statistics show that even in 2000, over 10 million people were employed in virtual sector jobs against a backdrop of over 25 million workers employed within the wider services sector. The virtual sector makes up approximately a third of the UK workforce, yet accounts for closer to half of UK GDP. In today’s climate (both meteorologic and economic), surely the overwhelming majority of virtual sector should be able to work from home and reduce the cost of snowfall?

There are plenty of examples of how companies can function even while staff work from home, and plenty more examples of companies failing to think ahead. I’m going to pick out two.

I’ll start with a software house in Oxford at which many of my friends are employed. When their offices are snowbound or employees are faced with a rather slippery uphill struggle to get to work, they are all provided with myriad sensible ways to work from home. For some, this is as simple as using the same laptop at home as at work. For others, it is centred on good, thorough documentation and a reliance on free, open source software. Sensible email access policies allow users to get set-up from home, and employees are provided with secure access to the company intranet through use of free, multi-platform, open source software like PuTTY. Because the company base so much of their operation on open source software, employees can freely install almost any of the other tools they need to do almost all of their work from home. It’s not ideal, but it’s pragmatic and allows for solid productivity even in the worst conditions. All they need is internet access.

Let’s take a rather less impressive case: Ebuyer, the online electronics superstore. Snow hits, and their deliveries take a hit—something which is perfectly understandable given the location of their offices in East Yorkshire. However, not only do their deliveries struggle, but so do their telephone lines. When the snow came down in early December, their telephone lines were closed for days and email enquiries received very limited responses. This was apparently because their staff could not make it to the support centre. But why did staff need to be in the centre to work?

There are many free or cheap solutions to route telephone calls that do not require a physical dedicated line hooked up to each handset, and indeed virtually every call centre already uses these. There are also plenty of good and cheap solutions for routing calls over IP. As for remote email access: this is just a given in the modern world, and all it takes is for a plan to be in place. Could staff not have been provided in advance with a spare headset and any required documentation to allow them to sign-on and work from home? Perhaps this is impossible with the systems that Ebuyer have in place, but with a little prior planning and good choice of technology it seems very unlikely that the problem could not have been avoided.

The key point is that with a little preparation and a little technology there is almost always a way to allow virtual sector employees to be work from home. There are so many solutions which are already in use for this very purpose—an increasing number of which are already in your IT infrastructure, are freely available, or can be cheaply deployed from the cloud. This is a solved problem from the technological standpoint. Connectivity is not an issue even over great distances, and bandwidth is largely free for consumers, so why not make use of it? Why are we still left to flounder when the snow settles?

This is a call to arms. Management: get prepared, talk to your system administrators in the New Year, and make this happen. It might require a little effort and a little will, but it can be done and will deliver huge savings to your business even in the medium term.

Everyone else: go outside and make the most of the snow while you can. This time next year you might find yourself not skiving and sledging, but working from home. At least you’ll get to skip the commute…

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