Should businesses set teleworking targets?

Last year the government said that by 2020 around 12 per cent of its employees will be teleworkers. Given the multitude of benefits attached to teleworking, should Australian businesses do the same?

At the launch of National Teleworking Week in November last year, Prime Minister Julia Gilard committed the Australian Public Service (APS) to have 12 per cent of its employees regularly teleworking by 2020. Although that announcement made headlines around the country, the broader question went unasked: if the target is 12 per cent for government, what should the target be for business?

It’s a crucial question because teleworking has the potential to not only dramatically boost business productivity and profits, it may also bring about sweeping changes to our cities and our social relationships, including new uses of physical space that more effectively channel creative and efficient working habits.

The technologies needed to make ubiquitous teleworking a reality – particularly the NBN and software platforms for remote collaboration – are either already in place or will be within a few years. But businesses must take a leadership role in setting – and meeting – teleworking targets if they want to remain competitive and creative in the imminent future.

Australia’s call to action

Teleworking is a flexible work arrangement where employees are able to work from home or other locations away from the office using broadband and other digital technology. In short, it removes the need to physically travel to and from work. That means less downtime, lower transport expenses, and more geographic flexibility for employees – all of which are generally assumed to improve an organisation’s productivity. A 2012 IDC report suggests that the number of mobile workers worldwide will hit 1.3 billion by 2015, constituting more than a third of our global population.

As a result of major technological shifts in recent years, the vision of a hyper-efficient “virtual office” appears tantalisingly close. According to Macquarie Telecom’s NBN Business Ready 2012 survey, more than half of Australian employees agree that the NBN will challenge the concept of the physical office. With the NBN, Australia will now uniformly have the network performance and technology to enable the same level of ICT service and working productivity at home as in a head office – if not higher.

If the shift to a more decentralised and flexible working environment is inevitable, why do businesses need clear teleworking targets like those set by the APS? A target indicates that a particular organisation is committed to, and accountable for, the business benefits of teleworking. It also indicates that the organisation understands how flexibility – the core value behind teleworking – enables competitive and creative practices that tangibly contribute towards meeting its goals.

For most businesses, this target should be certainly larger than 12 per cent. At IBM, more than 45 per cent of its 400,000 employees and contractors currently work remotely. In 2012, Cisco reported that 89% of their employees regularly telework. While targets may vary according to industry, the vast majority will need to embrace teleworking to some extent.

Robust technology, flexible policy

Technology is only part of the equation for a successful teleworking strategy however. Far more difficult is adapting HR policies and managerial attitudes to keep up with technological change. According to our NBN Business Ready 2012 survey, 70 per cent of respondents say that their business lacks any form of remote working policy; 68 per cent believe that change is required for people managers to be ready to effectively manage a remote workforce.

In some cases, challenges can be resolved through technical means, however, more flexible mindsets – such as defining employee KPIs based on outputs rather than hours spent working – are needed to truly realise the productivity benefits of ubiquitous telework. These mindsets, like teleworking targets, provide a framework within which employees can operate with greater trust, autonomy and productivity. Coupling a more flexible HR mentality with more robust network infrastructure is essential to meeting any teleworking targets set by both business and government.

The end of work as we know it?

Broadly speaking, teleworking promises significant benefits to Australia’s environments and cities. A report by Deloitte suggests that teleworking could cut CO2 emissions in Australia by up to 2.5 million tonnes each year; a 10 per cent rise in increase in teleworking uptake could result in reductions in congestion costs to the tune of $470 million. By removing the need to travel long distances every day, teleworking may promote the growth of smaller communities which prioritise local culture and production – resulting, perhaps, in a nation-wide network of cleaner, greener micro-cities.

One of the greatest concerns about teleworking, however, is that it’ll dispense with many of the social interactions which the business world relies on. Many organisations (like Australian software firm Atlassian) have relied on the unique nature of their physical workplaces to attract talent and drive business innovation. Could teleworking mean the end of these creative hubs?

It’s more likely that physical working spaces will most likely evolve rather than disappear altogether. More than 2000 co-working spaces – which allow teleworking individuals to work and talk to one another in person – exist across the globe, an increase of 250 per cent over two years according to a 2013 report in the Harvard Business Review. Prescient businesses will be looking at how to incorporate these trends into their own organisational policies, rather than stringently enforcing teleworking uptake or resisting it altogether.

By setting targets for themselves, businesses show a clear commitment to adopting teleworking, a move which will be increasingly critical to drawing talent and fostering innovation within organisations. These targets must then be backed up by visible actions: increasing bandwidth, delivering new applications, and above all driving more flexible policy from an executive level. The boosts to productivity and innovation will not only be long-lasting, but extend across Australia’s entire business landscape.

Chris Greig is the group executive of telecommunications at Macquarie Telecom

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