Waiting for the teleworking revolution

The government may have high hopes for making Australia a teleworking nation and while we have the technology to make that happen there are still plenty of cultural hurdles that need to be cleared.

The idea of a government promoted National Teleworking week carries a distinct sense of  deja vu - isn’t this push towards getting people to work from home something we’ve all seen before?

It’s nothing new for my family. Back in the 90’s, my father set up a company called ‘Telecommute Pty Ltd’ in anticipation of a boom in teleworking. Back then, the rise of the internet triggered dreams among office workers that they would be able to perform their duties anywhere as long as they had access to a computer.

Sadly, such dreams never became a reality. The Howard Government experienced a similar failure to launch when they implemented their teleworking agenda in 2004.

They held an inquiry, which led to an awareness campaign, which was eventually outsourced to a New Zealand teleworking promotion company and was never heard of again. 

Now, just under a decade after this last attempt, the Gillard government has waded back into the teleworking debate. It’s set up some goals, it’s got some of the tech giants onboard and now it's hoping to make a real difference to Australian workplaces. It wants to double teleworking agreements in workplaces around the country, and triple them in the public service by 2020.

Despite the poor track record, there’s a view within the wider tech community that the latest push by the Gillard government will succeed and Australia will become a teleworking nation. So what's fueling this confidence and why will Australian companies embrace teleworking now after neglecting it for the past two decades? 

What makes this teleworking revolution any different?

Perhaps the biggest difference between the push to teleworking today, and what was seen back during the nineties and the noughties is the technology that’s available.

According to Brad Krauskopf. the co-founder and CEO of workspace start-up Hub Melbourne, previous pushes into teleworking failed because the trend promised more than what the existing technology could deliver.

In this most recent push, Krauskopf says that the opposite is occurring.  Advances in mobile internet, cloud computing, devices and video conferencing mean employees can work from anywhere without impeding their productivity. That’s before the National Broadband Network, (NBN), widely seen as the key enabler of Australia’s teleworking future, even comes into play.

Combine all of this with the fact that most of these technologies - and internet capabilities - are well with the reach of the average consumer, and its easy to see why - from a technological standpoint at least - the current goal is quite achievable. 

Working outside of the office is already a norm within Australia, and according to Krauskopf, constitutes some form of teleworking. In fact, Krauskopf has his doubts over the government’s current figure that only six per cent of the Australian workforce engage in teleworking. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of people teleworking is already higher than what the statistics suggest,” he says.

However, while many Australian’s may already engage in some form of teleworking, its unlikely that they do so in a formal agreement with their employer. At the moment new technologies just make it easier for an employee to take their work home with them, and continue working outside office hours if necessary. 

It’s not about IT, its about HR

As a result of these advancements, teleworking is no longer a technology issue, but rather an human resources (HR) and management issue. For the most part, companies only need to adapt their management style to embrace the teleworking trend.

Major technology companies like Intel, Cisco and Microsoft are early adopters of the trend, and are seemingly more than happy to share advice and insight on how to implement it in the workplace. This is by no means a charitable move, these companies all sell products that tie in with teleworking. In other words, they benefit from its growth.  

Yet, Intel’s digital economy enablement executive, Corey Loehr abstained from the obvious temptation to plug the company’s latest wares. 

As far as Loehr is concerned, “if you have a computer with an internet connection, you can telework”.

Leading an empty office

Though, no amount of technology can fix the anti-teleworking cultural problems that still exist in many Australian workplaces. Human nature may also be getting in the way. No ego-driven manager wants to lead through a computer screen and assert authority to an office full of empty desks. 

According to Loehr, the old notion that “if you're not in an office you're not working” is still rife amongst Australian organisations. He adds that companies aren’t going to be able to kick this perception until they start measuring their employees on whether or not they perform, rather than on how long they spend in the office. 

Cisco’s APAC general manager of government and policy, Tim Fawcett says that the adoption of teleworking will be driven by employees rather than by management. Fawcett says that the that the teleworking trend will storm companies like a “revolution from below”, with employees demanding to use their own devices and work wherever and whenever they want. But Fawcett adds the leadership from the top of a company can also serve as a crucial tipping point in its telework transformation. 

But will there be change?

While much has changed, some things still remain the same. Any decision around teleworking still rests firmly in the hands of the employer and it's still seen as a privilege rather than a right. While technology has made it easier to say ‘yes’ to teleworking there are still HR questions that remain answered. 

Questions around Occupational Health and Safety regulations and Teleworking were frequently raised, and dodged by speakers during the government National Teleworking Congress in Melbourne this week.

And questions remain as to who will foot the bill for the internet, power and telephony services that you use at home as part of your work. While in most cases cost may be cheaper than commuting, is it fair for a company to simply hive off its services cost to its employees?

The government’s commitment to teleworking means that they will more than likely lead the charge into this new style of work. It will be interesting to see how they manage the transition and its quirks, as they will no doubt set the benchmark for other Australian industries to follow. But with the deadline set for 2020 - three elections away - don't hold your breath for a public sector teleworking revolution any time soon.