Home's where the work is

By Susan Edmunds

Remote workers enjoy flexibility while employers reduce costs of real estate space. Photo / Thinkstock
Remote workers enjoy flexibility while employers reduce costs of real estate space. Photo / Thinkstock

An IT worker in rural Tirau, a sub-editor working from Motueka on North Island newspapers, and a United States IT analyst based in Canterbury - five years ago these might have been impossibilities, but now they are all part of the country's growing remote workforce.

Two surveys have highlighted the extent to which remote work is taking over.

Recruiter Randstad found 80 per cent of Kiwi employers expected smartphones and technologies such as cloud computing to make the remote workforce a reality within 10 years. Forrester Research found it's already happening - half of 5000 IT workers surveyed split their time between an office and a remote location.

Randstad NZ director Paul Robinson said businesses had embraced mobile devices to facilitate remote working. "But what we are seeing now is only the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Employers and Manufacturers Association chief executive Kim Campbell said more people were already working remotely than many realised.

International telecommuting was also common. People living in New Zealand were working for companies in Asia, Europe and the US, Campbell said.

Remote working offers benefits for employers and workers, as companies save on office space and workers get flexibility. Campbell said a remote workforce would also enable a company to lower its carbon footprint.

"It lowers costs because you are not air-conditioning a great big building with no one in it."

A US study said companies saved US$10,000 ($12,900) per remote worker a year.

Remote workers do not necessarily have to work a traditional 9am to 5pm day, which can be a bonus, especially if the company has clients in different time zones.

Igor Portugal, chief executive of Vadacom, which makes telephone and software systems that help facilitate remote working, said the company had set up hundreds of businesses.

Call centres were closing their offices and moving staff home. "I give a choice to my employees whether they want to work from the office or from home, and it works really well."

Portugal said staff working from home were more productive, although as a manager he had to discipline himself not to ask them to work after-hours too often. "I have to be aware of the fact that our workers are in their own homes and be disciplined not to intrude."

Because their work was "right there", some staff found it hard to turn off when they were off the clock. Being able to offer remote work meant he could hire people who otherwise would not be suitable.

One staff member is in Masterton and another in Tirau. "In the middle of a paddock there are not that many IT jobs you can get."

The company has a regular Friday "beer o'clock" teleconference, where workers check in for a chat.

Campbell said employers with a remote workforce would have to change the way they measured performance.

Employers would have to gauge productivity and output, not just the number of hours a worker was present.

But as well as offering opportunities for New Zealanders to work internationally, remote work allowed foreigners to pitch for work at New Zealand firms.

"As long as your job does not involve physically moving things around, it can be done anywhere," Campbell said.

The loss of jobs to cheaper foreign remote labour was a problem, particularly for entry-level employees. Campbell said New Zealand would have to focus on upskilling its workforce to stave off the threat.

"What do you do about it? Have more trained people doing more difficult jobs. Add value to things that can't be done elsewhere."

Now was the time to discuss the possibilities and problems of remote working, Campbell said. "It's an important conversation. What are the generation of babies being born now going to be doing in 20 years?"

He said remote working would have an impact on everything from the real estate investments businesses made to the type of people they hired.

Logged in from home

Matthew Lowe has been working from his home in Upper Moutere, near Motueka, for more than two years. Briton Lowe came to New Zealand with a plan to live somewhere rural.

He works for Pagemasters, the company contracted to do much of the sub-editing of APN newspapers in New Zealand. He was working in Auckland when he asked to make the move.

"I wanted to get out in the sticks and this was a chance to enjoy the lifestyle I wanted."

He can sometimes feel a bit forgotten about by management. And with the Rugby World Cup on, he misses the office banter. "But you have to make time in the rest of your life to get that social interaction."

Despite his rural location, he has had no problems with broadband and finds his computer works as quickly as when he was based in an office.

But while it suits him perfectly, it's not something that would sit well with everyone. "You need a certain level of discipline and you have to be quite focused."

- Herald on Sunday

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