Home, sweet office

With the rapid development of mobile technologies and the internet, offices may one day be unnecessary. Although more and more people are taking advantage of working remotely – from home and elsewhere – it will still be some time before that daily commute becomes a thing of the past.

Photo: steelcase

IN SOME FIELDS, working from home has been possible practically forever – translators never had to sit in offices, architects could make their drawings in the comfort of their homes, and freelance journalists were never seen in editorial offices. Elsewhere, the development of information technologies made homeworking possible, and today it’s a reality in such fields as IT, advertising, telecommunications, design, and consulting – to name a few.
” Working from home, if it’s balanced with regular social contact with colleagues, motivates employees and saves the firm’s time and resources,” says Monika Végh, personnel director at Ernst & Young. “Thanks to the modern technologies that our firm uses for homeworking, these employees can securely connect with the firm’s network and work with documents on-line,” she adds, clarifying the motivation for E&Y’s homeworking policy. Many other large firms like Aliatel, Hewlett-Packard, and Unilever are similarly instituting work from home. But even though the interest of companies is rising, the chance of working from home is still an option for only a small number of people. In more progressive countries, however, it is a stronger trend. According to a recent census conducted by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19% of the entire American workforce works from home at least part-time.
However, Czech firms usually employ a minority (about 10%) of their workers this way, and most of them work from home only part-time. “In our company employees work from home only three days a week at most – there must remain a certain physical contact with the firm,” says Markéta Schwarzová of Sun Microsystems, which allows 15% of its employees in the Czech Republic to work from home. “It mostly involves programmers and developers. We inform them of the option of working at home, and they’re often happy to take advantage of it. Their departments take this into account and can make better use of their work space,” Schwarzová adds.
But many firms aren’t yet aware of the space-saving possibilities entailed by allowing employees to work at home, not to mention that the market isn’t encouraging them to use the option. “The construction of new office developments in Prague is still strong,” notes Daniel Krška, the Czech Republic’s dealer manager for Steelcase, a supplier of custom-made office furniture. “This excessive supply suppresses rent prices, so employers aren’t motivated to save on work space.”

Photo: steelcase

According to Ladislav Trpák of the on-line advertising agency Advertures, other factors favor the development of homeworking, such as higher employee performance. The same reason is mentioned by Contactel workers who work from home (see sidebar, page 23). But this varies depending on the work habits of the specific person. Some people need the workplace environment to be “forced” to work. Such is the experience of Jan Tichý, who is employed as a programmer. “My employer allowed me to work at home, but I finally rejected it. True, when I was working two days a week at home I saved four hours of commuting to Prague, but I wound up losing my entire weekend,” Tichý explains. “In short, at home I wasn’t as effective, so on the weekends I had to catch up with what I didn’t accomplish during the week. I can concentrate much better in the office than at home; there’s no television or anything like that to distract me,” he adds.
A web designer whose work for the Czech web site Peníze.cz was overseen by program coordinator Tomáš Hampl provides a contrary example: “When he worked at home he definitely accomplished more. But the problem was communication – what I could show him in a minute at work had to be complexly described via e-mail, and I lost a lot of time myself with it.” Whether it’s possible to perform one’s work from home also depends largely on the job description. “We allow homeworking for employees with whom uninterrupted contact with clients or other team colleagues isn’t required,” says Végh of Ernst & Young.
For example, software firms that create custom-made solutions generally don’t offer homeworking. “Our projects require intensive communication within the team, which is impossible from home,” says Kateřina Horová, Unicorn’s HR director. Dobromil Podpěra, executive director of the software firm Cleverlance, also sees the necessity of teamwork as an obstacle: “I don’t think working with people who work at home is as effective as working with people who are in personal contact with us – harmonizing a team is much more complicated.”
Besides the need for communication within a team, technology also often prevents homeworking. Many software applications must be developed in the same environment in which they will be used, and creating the right environment in an employee’s home can be a problem, according to Horová. Another drawback can be the need to ensure proper handling of confidential information, as is the case, for example, with debt collection companies.

Human nature
There’s no doubt as to the further expansion of homeworking. “I think that in the future it will be used more for positions whose job descriptions don’t require daily physical presence in the workplace,” says Pavla Váňová, Contactel’s HR director. Nevertheless, she adds that “the model of partial homeworking is optimal, as regular personal contact with colleagues brings greater loyalty and supports a ‘team atmosphere’ within the firm.”
Still, several obstacles will have to be overcome within firms for this to happen. According to Krška, “[The firms] want to see their people sitting in offices and they don’t know how they can be monitored at home,” he explains. This primarily relates to software firms that develop custom-made solutions, but also consulting companies and auditors, whose employees work on projects directly at clients’ offices. The clients want to see the people they pay for.
While modern technologies can quickly overcome distances and break down barriers, the greatest obstacle to homeworking will long remain human nature. “Personal communication cannot be completely replaced by these smartest technologies,” Podpěra opines. “In our own way we’re the same as we were 2,000 years ago, when face-to-face communication was a necessity.”

A desk for your den

The slowly advancing “homeworking” trend is bringing business to furniture makers, too, as they’ve begun to design adaptable home offices.

FURNITURE FOR this purpose must meet specific criteria that differ from those for furniture made solely for office use. “It has to be a mobile station that can be easily adjusted for a quick meeting at home, for instance. And it should take up the least amount of space, and after disassembly it should be easy to use in another household,” explains Daniel Krška of the Czech branch of Steelcase, an international office furniture manufacturer that also deals with the “home office” concept.
According to Krška, the global homeworking trend has yet to hit the Czech Republic as in more advanced countries, and its greatest boom isn’t expected for a few years. “But abroad we’re already closing large contracts in this field, mainly with modern technology corporations like Sun Microsystems and NCR. Within the limitations set by their firms, their employees can go to our web site and choose the furniture that will fit well in their homes,” Krška says.
Equipping one such home office typically costs an employer between CZK 20,000 and 50,000. “True, we don’t fill custom orders, but choosing from over 500 product lines allows us to adapt to the given space,” Krška explains. “It’s important to preserve standardization and the possibility of arranging the furniture anywhere,” he adds, pointing out that local firms still only rarely request home office furniture, and then generally only for individual managers who want the same equipment for working at home as in their offices.

Milan Duda

Advertures: Designing remotely

Ladislav Trpák

For coder Jiří Kaiser (27), the desk in the corner of the living room of his 2+1 apartment in Plzeň has been a “remote office” of the Advertures advertising agency for two years. His main task is creating HTML code for prepared web sites based on graphic designs.Having his two-year-old daughter crawling around underfoot and occasionally helping his wife with housework disturbs him less than the noise of an office. “I get up in the morning and I’m at work. I have more peace and quiet here. I receive designs via e-mail and I either e-mail them to a programmer or store them on the company’s server,” says Kaiser, adding that he sees his Prague colleagues in person only about thrice annually. “Mostly it’s at company events or when I’m in Prague by chance.” Besides peace and quiet, Kaiser also likes working at home because it saves him over CZK 3,000 and three hours a day in commuting to Prague. On the other hand, he sees limited personal contact and self-discipline as problematic. “Sometimes it’s hard to force myself to act. But once you learn how, working home can be more comfortable than a classic job.”
Kaiser isn’t the only Advertures employee to work like this. “Three full-timers and many external colleagues work from home,” explains Advertures’ director, Ladislav Trpák (29). His firm cooperates with an advance designer from Poland and a draftsman from Sweden, for example. He says using homeworking is connected with the development of technologies and cost savings. “You don’t pay rent for an office, you just have to ensure your internet connection. And with the arrival of ADSL these costs have dropped markedly,” says Trpák, adding that, thanks to the internet, the firm also saves money on telephone bills, because its employees can communicate easily via IP telephony.
Because of such advancements, the company was later able to close its Brno office, and all employees from there switched to homeworking. Their communication with the firm is facilitated mainly by the company intranet, on which everything they need for homeworking is posted – planning and reserving sources, managerial statements dealing with progress on projects, and knowledge databases, among other information. “So we know how long individual tasks take, and work results can be checked easily. Deadlines and self-discipline are important,” notes Trpák, “but above all, there needs to be trust between employer and employee.”

Milan Duda


Unilever: A reason for flexibility

Pavlína Jílková, Magdalena Líbalová

When asked what advice they would give a company implementing a homeworking policy, Unilever employees smile: be flooded, they joke. With its Czech headquarters in Karlín, Unilever’s homeworking policy got its start during the high waters there in August 2002. A year later, the concept – along with flexitime working hours – became official policy for the consumer goods company. “It worked and we saw it was possible to give people more flexibility,” says Pavlína Jílková, HR manager at Unilever.
Using nothing more than a computer and good internet access, dozens (out of a total 400) office employees – who either are on maternity leave or have a small child at home, have special family reasons, or are sales managers located out of Prague – spend the majority of their time working from home. Magdalena Líbalová, a lawyer who’s worked 10 years for the company, is one example. She went on maternity leave in September 2002 and was back to work by the next March. For her, homeworking was a big draw. “I wouldn’t have come back so early [without it],” she admits. While there aren’t any statistics, the company says employee retention benefits most from this policy. “From the Unilever side it’s an easy step to take,” says Jílková.
It’s also an easy step for the employee. “My husband supported me because he understood I needed to practice [to stay up to date in my work],” Líbalová says of her decision to try homeworking. She concedes that early on the baby could be a distraction, but now that the child is two and a half years old and attends nursery school, it’s easier to concentrate. Líbalová mixes her work day with trips to and from school and grocery shopping, and also has more time to visit the office to manage her work team. “If I worked only from home, I would lose that office spirit and the relationships [involved with that],” she reasons.
Jílková thinks homeworking is easy to implement, but only if it’s needed and the right people are targeted. She says the small number of Unilever employees homeworking makes it easier to control, with work quality the final measurement. Her colleague advises aspiring homeworkers to learn to organize their time, and to remember it is still a job. “You shouldn’t think you’ll work just a few hours a week,” she says.

Jason Hovet

Terra: Translating via technology

Alena Záklasníková

After the foreign influx of the early ’90s, this high school English teacher decided to become an interpreter and translator. As a self-employed entrepreneur, she was free to establish the Terra translation agency in her home. “With this type of work, in the age of completely new data transmission technologies, the possibility of working from home is an indisputable advantage. I have a better, peaceful background, comfort, low expenses, greater flexibility, and the opportunity to combine work with my personal life,” explains Záklasníková, who gradually expanded her activities and currently has three close colleagues and more than 20 steady external translators and interpreters.
” I take orders, pass them to individual translators, and send in the prepared translations. I can do all that from home, over the telephone or via e-mail,” she notes with satisfaction. “Sometimes I do interpreting myself in order to maintain personal contact with clients,” says the agency owner, whose firm provides translation services in many global languages, including Japanese and Finnish.
She sees her slightly diminished visibility by potential clients as a certain disadvantage, but for her the advantages outweigh it, and she doesn’t intend to change her work style in the future. “I do essentially the same thing from home that I’d do in an office,” she claims. Unlike many women who have a hard time finding a balance between domestic chores and work they get paid for in their “home offices”, Záklasníková has few sources for conflict. “My children are grown. My son already lives elsewhere, and my daughter, a college student, understands my work and even helps me. The only disruptive element is our dog, who sometimes so distracts me – so then I take him for a walk and recharge my batteries,” she laughs.

Monika Mudranincová

Contactel: “Homework allowed” since the beginning

Petr Šmelhaus, Pavla Váňová

It’s mainly peace and quiet that motivates Contactel employees to exercise the option of working from home.
The firm’s offered this opportunity to some of its employees ever since its founding in 1999. Currently, Pavla Váňová, Contactel’s HR director, says a tenth of the 274 employees take advantage of the option, mainly people in positions where it is allowed by character of their work, such as product managers, attorneys, and programmers. But for all of them this involves so-called partial homeworking, usually for a few hours, at most a day per week. They use notebooks, mobile phones (both supplied for requisite positions), and internet connections, mostly paid for by the firm. A specific position for which Contactel recently allowed working from home is specialist in the transit services department, which handles voice services. These workers need to communicate with partners in the US, and because of the time zone differences they work between 7:00 and 10:00 pm.
The employees see several advantages in homeworking. “At home I’m not encumbered by banalities and can concentrate better on my work,” explains Roman Stiller, IT solutions manager. “Air conditioning and open space affect my performance negatively,” he adds. Product manager Vladimír Urban agrees: “I do more work in the same amount of time at home, mainly because it’s quieter.” Lawyer Petr Šmelhaus mentions another reason: “with no commuting time, I can get right to work in the morning.”
The option of working from home also gives employees greater time flexibility. “Employees can attend their personal matters during the working hours and finish their work at home,” Váňová explains. From this viewpoint working from home is a benefit that increases loyalty to the firm. Furthermore, Váňová says that homeworking has additional benefits – if someone calls in sick during the day, they can catch up after hours.

Petr Vykoukal

CK Adventura: Trust as the main prerequisite

Radovan Vlček

Radovan Vlček lives in Krkonoše. From his home he spends from six to nine hours a day working as project manager for the Adventura travel agency, which is headquartered in Prague.

He’s responsible for preparing and coordinating excursions, he conducts economic analyses and creates budgets, and he communicates with suppliers, clients and the home office. He also manages “Adventura – Sports and Living in the Wild School”, an accredited training center. “Working from home requires a great degree of discipline, but it allows for regulating hours according to one’s needs,” explains Vlček. “I’m used to working a lot in the evenings.” This work arrangement is the only way he can do what he enjoys while being able to spend time with his family, which he does regularly at breakfast and lunch and during some afternoons.
“If a firm doesn’t want to lose a good employee it pays to let him or her work from home,” says Vlček’s direct superior, Anna Bauerová, head of Adventura’s coordination department. Such a form of cooperation works well where the employer trusts the employee and tries to meet him or her half-way. Vlček agrees: “Adventura’s management’s and my colleagues’ willingness, along with the technical level of information technologies allows me to work in my ‘detached office’,” he says, ticking off the main prerequisites for working 150 kilometers away from company headquarters. However, Vlček had to acquire the equipment for his workplace at his own expense. These necessary expenses allow him to use the internet and his mobile phone to be not only in contact with his colleagues, but also directly connected to company servers.
He also regularly makes 2-3 day trips to the Prague office every 14 days (every week during the busy season). Adventura pays for his business calls and SMS messages, and in exchange requires that he conscientiously performs his assignments. “It’s all about trust. Our employees are paid by the assignment, not by the hour. So no one can afford not to handle their tasks,” says Bauerová, explaining the important motivational and control element of the firm’s policy.
But working from home is definitely not for everyone. For example, while Vlček claims that he likes working from home and says he’s more effective in the peace of his house, Bauerová, in contrast, can’t imagine working this way over the long term and losing daily contact with her colleagues

Monika Mudranincová






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *