TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Home is where the office is

The idea of teleworking – or working remotely from a home office – has flown under the radar during the NBN debate. Here’s how a boost in teleworking as a result of the NBN will impact Australia.

Technology Spectator

The NBN rollout across Australia will make teleworking possible for more people and improve the experience for those who already telework. Telework, also known as telecommuting, involves staff using telecommunications technologies to regularly work some or all of the time from a home office or other location that isn’t their employer’s office.

Claimed benefits of teleworking include improved productivity, infrastructure cost savings, improved ability for an organisation to attract and retain staff, cost savings in time and travel, higher employee satisfaction and better work/life balance.

However, improving telecommunications technology and holding a National Telework Week, 12 to 16 November this year, to create awareness are not silver bullets that will of themselves result in a large increase in the percentage of the workforce which has telework arrangements to at least 12 per cent by 2020, as per the Australian government’s national digital economy strategy goal.

In the US the Obama administration has gone further than aspirational goals by passing The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, mandating federal agencies to actively embrace telework for the threefold purposes of: enabling continuity of operations in emergency situations; reduce operational, transport and environmental costs; as well as enhancing the work/life balance of employees.

Trust is one of the big issues which will need to be addressed for the telework push to succeed. Workers must be judged by outcomes rather than appearing to be running around very fast in the "hamster wheel” of an office environment.

Many years ago while we were being shown around a large workplace, the issue of open plan office productivity was brought up. Our guide waved his hand across the sea of cubicle workers in the open plan office and pointed out that all of them appear to be working. However he wisely pointed out that when viewed from a distance, without checking the output of each individual worker, there is no discernible difference between busy activity and useful productive work.

The UNSW School of Business report Managing TeleWorkers: Coming to Grips with Remote Control quoted Bevis England, facilitator of Telework Australia and Lee Ward, vice-president and general manager of information technology outsourcing at Unisys Australia, as stating:

"Management style, for those who are not used to looking after teleworkers, must also shift from process-oriented to outcome-oriented management ... Once the teleworker has the tools - the training, the information and the ability to do their job - the worker must then be trusted to get that job done and judged only by the outcomes of their efforts.”

According to Jon Dee, founder and managing director of Do Something, co-founder of Planet Ark and NBN champion:

"The NBN will give us a digital capability that will make teleworking viable on a mass scale. That will generate significant social, economic and environmental benefits for Australia”.

"Switching large numbers of people away from car commuting and into teleworking could save billions of dollars in 'avoidable' congestion costs and will also help to reduce the 8 per cent of emissions that are attributable to passenger car emissions. In addition to reducing our greenhouse emissions, this could also reduce the pollution levels in our cities.”

Technology Spectator attended the Mckell Institute Telework Forum on Transport, Commuting and the Workplace of the Future last week. This forum brought together leading University researchers in the area of Telework, government representatives and corporations involved in the transport industry, to discuss issues such as 40 per cent of outer metropolitan Australians battling both distance and traffic during their 40 minute plus commute to and from work every day.

Anyone who has seen the effect of school holidays on road traffic knows that there is a tipping point pointed out speaker Dr Ric Simes from Deloitte Access Economics.

Simes said that more road infrastructure alone is insufficient, urban planning must also lessen the pressure on infrastructure. He explained that "we don't need a lot of people to move to telework to get a big effect. If we can move to 12 per cent [of the workforce] it can be powerful”. It isn’t necessary for a large proportion of the workforce to telework for there to be a noticeable decrease in traffic congestion and increase in average speed.

Flavio Romano, principal regulatory economist with Telstra also brought this issue up during a CeBIT interview, saying that he believes:

"There are real opportunities to use digital infrastructure, particularly with the advent of ubiquitous fibre broadband via the NBN, to make real inroads into deferring costly builds of new infrastructure and increasing efficiency of how we use existing infrastructure. There is a big opportunity for government departments to lead by example, encouraging their staff to tele-commute.”

Tim Fawcett, from Cisco's government affairs and policy department, said that according to the 2010 Cisco Connected World Report, "participants preferred jobs with workplace flexibility and remote access at lower salary to less-flexible jobs at higher salary”.

Fawcett also explained that another driver of telework was pressure on families. He cited the just released Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, "Families make all the difference: Helping kids to grow and learn” by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, which revealed that among 10 to 11 year olds, 35 per cent said their father worked too much and 27 per cent that their mother worked too much.

AIFS studies director, Professor Alan Hayes commented on the study’s results:

"Finding a way of meeting the demands of paid work, as well as taking care of children is difficult for many parents and underlines the need for workplaces to continue to adopt more flexible approaches to allow their employees to manage their family responsibilities”.

During the forum, Dr Yvette Blount from Macquarie University noted that more research needs to be done into how organisations can implement telework that is sustainable and provides quantifiable organisational benefits, as well as how technology infrastructure such as the NBN can mitigate the barriers/limitations of telework.

Similarly, Kate Carruthers, a leading business technology commentator cautioned that:

"Teleworking can be a great benefit on several levels. For introverts who prefer quiet over open office plans it can be a blessing and productivity tool. However, teleworking must have appropriate output goals determined up front so that debates about the volume and quality of work produced do not degenerate into slanging matches.”

"Another key issue is how the teleworkers stay integrated with the rest of the team. That is where internal social platforms like Yammer and Chatter can assist them to stay in touch with the team. Also face-to-face meeting time with team members ought to be encouraged within organisations. It is important to get the balance between teleworking as a productivity tool and collaboration as a productivity tool”.

Other issues that need to be addressed include OH&S regulations, data security and whether the employer pays for all home office costs such as a computer, desk, broadband plan etc or shares the cost with staff.

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