Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Going Remote

Going Remote is the feature article in published in SME Gazette February 2014 by yours truly.


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Change is the only constant, and Heraclitus’s famous words couldn’t be truer in the information age, where things change at a more rapid pace than lighting-speed internet connections. Entrepreneurs and employees alike are finding that there’s increasingly more to do and less time to do it in. Time is money and ASAP have become company mantras but lest we forget – we’re still only human. The traditional 8 to 5 at one dedicated office is no longer the only solution for getting things done. SME Gazette’s Tanya Turipamwe Stroh looks at new working trends, as effective business tools for SMEs in the digital revolution.

Zeitgeist 

The information age, kick-started by the digital revolution has drastically changed the world’s economies, which are increasingly focused on technical industries. More and more companies and SMEs alike, need savvy wunderkinder who know their way around software. With the dawn of email, user-interfaces and mouse clicks, we’ve been able to complete more tasks, more effectively – literally packing more into our workday. Though, along with the increased demands in workload, so has the demand for quality of life. The Namibian Labour Act 2007 puts ordinary working hours at a maximum of 45 hours per week. That is 9 hours a day for 5 days or 8 hours a day for more than 5 days a week – there are of course exceptions.

Commuting has become a fact of daily life, as many Windhoek, Rehoboth and Okahandja residents will agree. Windhoek roads between 06.30 and 08.00am are not smooth sailing anymore, raising questions of city planning and better public transport systems. There is also a looming increase in petrol and taxi prices, with a large chunk of one’s pay-check going to transport and fuel costs alone.

With all these demands considered, there has been a shift in working trends, away from the industrial revolution model, towards more flexible hours and local of work, namely flexitime and telecommuting. What are these and can they be used effectively in Namibia?

Flexitime 

Flexitime is essentially a variable work schedule. Commonly, it includes core hours, where employees are expected to be at work, typically from 11 am to 3 pm, while the remainder of the hours are flexible in the sense that the employee determines the hours that they work. There are several different combinations for flexitime, e.g. clocking in at 9am and leaving at 6pm, every day or every other day. Other options include an extended lunch break of 2 hours, requiring employees to be in earlier and leave later, or even working extra hours on each day, earning Fridays off. Flexitime does not reduce the number of work hours but rather re-distributes them more favourably.

What is the major benefit of flexitime? In short – better quality of life. Employees feel empowered. Flexible hours mean that employees can more effectively integrate work with their daily lives, like dealing with care giving of children or parents, pursuing further studies, volunteering or even exercise and errands. Successful flexitime models mean that it is a win-win situation for both the employer and employee. Basically, happy people equal happy employees.

 Research suggests that employees are more likely to work for companies that offer flexitime and this is especially true of women, as they are often the primary caregiver in families. Sometimes it is simply a talent issue. Millennials entering the job market have started expecting flexitime as a given while employers offer it so as to hold onto their top talent pool.

Give an Inch... 

So how does it work? Human resource specialists suggest that companies should have a generic flexitime policy that includes detailed requirements depending on a particular position and job description. Policies should be clearly communicated to staff so that there is no sense of favouritism. The most successful policies mean that business goals are met while staff get the work times they want. Protocol requirements can be set for specific jobs, for example to-do-list completion or checking into the office with phone calls. Employers need to set clear targets and employees in turn need to know how they will meet them. Written agreements, clear contracts and job descriptions are vital to establishing the do’s and don’ts of flexitime.

Other schools of thought regarding flexitime argue that only specific staff and jobs are eligible for flexitime, due to its nature. Staff under probation or those who have issues regarding punctuality or performance with an inability to work independently are not good candidates.

Working remotely 

Along with flexitime goes flexi place, also known as telecommuting or working remotely. Essentially, this means that staff can choose where they work. This could be from home offices, communal meeting rooms or even coffee shops. This allows staff to complete their work in personally more conducive spaces. Again, with the changing nature of technology, this kind of work might include anything from creative thinking to serious problem solving. It is almost a sort of headspace which employees need to get into. Busy offices are not always the most conducive environments with constant phone calls, meeting requests and interruptions. Of course other places may also interfere with productivity, but personal working environments might be more likely to get staff cracking on the job. Working remotely requires effective time management, a good internet connection, cloud file storage and a secure network, particularly for more data of a sensitive nature.

Competitively speaking, it also means that employers can access and commission a pool of talent via the internet, which may not be otherwise physically possible. With the internet, there is no longer a reason why you cannot hire employees two continents away. This includes anyone from journalists to software programmers, from graphic designers to engineers.

As utopic as working remotely sounds – there are critics arguing that it isn’t good for productivity and working in face-to-face teams. Personal errands like laundry or watching sitcom re-runs can easily get in the way at the cost of work. Recently Yahoo! CEO, Marrisa Meyer announced that Yahoo! employees would no longer be able to work remotely, citing issues of unproductivity in the large software company. The HR memo stated: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Finally, while teleportation is not a reality just yet, flexitime and working remotely seems a good interim solution when implemented correctly. A trial run may be a good start. Keep close tabs on meeting business goals, HR insight and the state of employees, to determine the outcomes. Work methods are no longer set in the proverbial grind stone.

While Namibia isn’t always an early adopter, SMEs may consider combining new and traditional work methods in keeping with the ever changing times.

SMEG INSIGHT FROM THE PRO’s 

SME Gazette asked entrepreneurs Alastair Aspara and Mark Mushiva, both based in Windhoek about whether flexitime and working remotely is a realistic solution for business in Namibia. 

Alastair Aspara 

Electrical engineer, project consultant and co-founder of ARC - a project, development and engineering consultancy. 


In engineering, the current industry practice involves the engineer doing regular supervision, involving site inspection, installation recommendations and written engineering instructions. This practice requires engineers to travel (sometimes) vast distances to get to site. Email and the posting of photographs have introduced the concept of remote site management, which reduces the hours taken for progress inspection, improving overall communication. It is now imagined that mobile technology and intelligent software can assist in real time progress monitoring by using mobile phone sensor technology to compare the real time progress, through converting 2D pictures to 3D, and comparing progress with the 3D model progression. This, combined with current project management techniques, represents a very new way of managing construction processes. These new techniques can greatly reduce the traditionally high cost of disbursement travelling budgets for professional services. Namibia is a large country with vast geographical distances between towns and it is also a very centralised nation, with key resources often only found in its capital. Namibia is the ideal landscape for the implementation of this technology.

Mark Mushiva 
Researcher, user interface software developer and co-founder of The Tech Guys, an innovation hub.

Working remotely pretty much depends on the type of work that you do. Namibia still lacks the skills and communal spaces which are conducive to working remotely. Some jobs might need on-site client feedback and correspondence, as the job is being done in increments. Clients in this regard may have a harder time articulating clear requirements over the internet. The whole industry really needs a cultural change. The challenge is to bridge business goals and customer needs with effective requirements engineering. Working remotely and meeting business goals is a fungible concept really. Flexible work ethics supports innovation – it’s the classical open workshop Menlo approach. The approach encourages small teams, usually in pairs, working together on a given problem by means of story cards and a large work bulletin board. Each card details the job to be completed focusing on the exact business value. Though, for more clear methods, goals and process scenarios, a more traditional approach is needed. In short – you can’t make jet engines at home.

FACT BOX: Useful links
• Jason Fried and David Hanson, founders of 37 Signals are firm believers in flexitime and working remotely. They’ve co-penned two recent books on the topics, namely REWORK – Change the way you work forever and REMOTE – Office not required – two excellent resources on the topics for any entrepreneur or starter.

Making things easy
Base Camp and Asana are  great project management tool. Both let’s you plan, share, prioritise and complete tasks in the simples of ways.

Take your work with you
Cloud tools like Base Camp, Dropbox and Google Drive will allow you to share and store work online for easy access.

FaceTime
Skype, Google Hangouts and Campfire allow for group chats and calls. Most smart phones allow you to have a video call. Research has shown that employees who are seen are more likely to receive promotions and leadership positions.

Missed something?
See the October 2013 SME Gazette feature article on time management. It deals with issues of routines, deadlines and workflows – all essential tools for SMEs considering flexitime and working remotely.

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