Kiwi bosses wary of home truth

By David Maida

Given Auckland's ridiculous traffic and record petrol prices, you'd think there would be a lot more people working from home.

But Bevis England, director of Telework New Zealand, says just 5 to 6 per cent of the working population works from home on a regular basis.

"The reason why it hasn't taken off as fast as some people thought is I think there was an awful lot of misunderstanding associated with the hype," England says.

That hype was fuelled by technology vendors eyeing up a huge market for themselves but it turned out to be unrealistic.

"When you look at the changes that have taken place in the past 15 years, and the sheer number of people working this way now, it is obviously taking off - albeit not as fast as some people would have predicted."

England advises organisations on how to let employees work off-site and says the concept has been around a long time.

California physicist and engineer Jack Nilles is known as the father of telecommuting and teleworking after he coined both terms in 1973.

"The broader term of telework is more about working from a distance rather than just using technology to replace the commute," England says.

Today, the telework approach is used to solve other problems, such as emissions reductions, traffic congestion and work/life balance issues.

But employees and employers still have reservations about the idea.

"People think because they're out of sight, they'll be passed up for promotion," England says.

"That raises serious questions about how the work performance is actually being measured.

"Are people being measured because of their appearance or their physical presence regardless of what they do? Or are they being measured by what they achieve?"

England says the hard part is convincing managers that they will still be able to manage their staff from afar.

"It's not all of the staff being out of the office. It's selected staff set up by guidelines. They're not going to be out of the office all day every day.

"If the manager does not believe the staff are working when they are out of sight, then the company has a major problem. Most office-bound employees are not in the line of sight of the manager anyway."

England says line-of-sight management is an old concept and is no longer appropriate or fair in today's workforce.

But it's not just about being able to do the same thing from off-site, it's actually about increasing performance.

"Productivity improvements in quality of work and quantity of work have shown that teleworkers are actually generally far better employees."

There are other incentives for employers to have a formalised teleworking system in place, too.

"Reducing the amount of commuting your staff do is the single most important step that an employer can take to reduce their carbon footprint."

But for this to work, England says, it has to be phased in slowly.

"The first step is to work gradually. Perhaps one day a week with five or six staff and then just gradually let it grow as you see how it works."

You also need to take into account the types of people and the types of roles telecommuting will suit. But technology is no longer an issue.

"Almost every organisation I speak to about telework already has perfectly adequate technology in place."

Office politics should also be considered.

"When employees perceive telework as a perk or a piece of favouritism, then it doesn't work as well as if it's part of the normal way the company works," England says.

Teleworking does come with some issues of its own, such as network security and being able to reach staff immediately. But England says the ideal length of time to work away from the office is only around two or three days a week.

"Any more time out of the office and you do start to lose contact with the corporate culture. Any less than that and you might have trouble realising the full financial benefits."

Dr Jarrod Haar, associate professor at the Waikato management school, agrees that face-time is important.

"Being seen has its benefits for everybody. Not just the employer but also the employee knows what's going on. So maybe two or three days max would be fine."

Social isolation is one problematic aspect of working from home.

"There are definitely social issues," Haar says.

"You get the camaraderie and collegiality of working as a team in the office. There are real risks of underperformance at home through lack of a team dynamic.

"But I don't think there are any jobs where people are telecommuting five days a week anyhow."

A survey of 1320 global executives by executive search firm Korn/Ferry International found more than 60 per cent believe telecommuters are less likely to advance in their careers.

"I don't think that necessarily means that there is any difference in productivity. It's just purely face-time," Haar says.

"I think that shows how narrow employers or HR people or managers think because, surely, if you're going to promote and retain, it would be the most productive person."

Haar agrees the line-of-sight management principal is outdated.

"Common sense would tell us that there are lots of distractions in the workplace and I think employers need to get over the idea of, 'If I can't see them, how can I trust that they're doing any work?' "

With more electronic communications in use, workers often email colleagues across their desks or just down the hallway. Haar says they might as well be off-site.

"Surely I could work from Albany as well as I could work from down the end of the corridor if you're never going to see me in person."

But employers still view the concept with scepticism.

"I don't think telecommuting is something that employers are rushing headlong into and providing more of," Haar says.

"I don't think they're necessarily going away from it but my feeling is that things have kind of stalled in terms of willingness to give telecommuting more support.

"I think the big thing is just fear. Employers are too scared to let employees go home to work because they think they'll go home to work and work half a day."

At home, workers could focus less on the art of looking busy in the office and more on their jobs.

"I think the reality is that if a professional wants to do half a day's work, they can do that in the office."

Haar says workers should be more proactive in building a business case for their employer to see the benefits of them working from home on occasion.

But many employers are just beginning to come to grips with the concept of flexible office hours.

"Employers are less likely to offer a flexible place and more likely to offer perhaps a bit more flexible time because if I can see you for eight hours a day, I don't really care which eight hours that is."

Employers could take the opportunity to use teleworking as a bargaining chip to help control their increased remuneration expenditure - such as employees forgoing a pay rise in order to work a couple of days from home.

"If I work from home one day a week I'm not burning half a tank of petrol. It probably is worth a bit of money on top of being more relaxed and being able to stay at home."

With the proven benefits of greater retention, higher staff morale and improved performance, Haar says that many New Zealand employers are simply missing the ball in terms of the gains teleworking could provide.

"In Auckland 30 years ago, we had carless days. Would it be impossible for skilled workers to work from home one day a week? I suspect not."

* www.DavidMaida.com

- NZ Herald

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