Your place, the workplace

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A high-profile attempt to ban telecommuting raises a question: Is working from home really working? Anthony Doesburg reports

Bevis England says employers can't afford not to have flexible work options. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Bevis England says employers can't afford not to have flexible work options. Photo / Ted Baghurst

It's a friday and, as he does most weeks, Tim Bentley is working from home in Warkworth. That means he can drop the kids at school and pick them up afterwards.

It also means he'll be able to catch some cricket on TV. Bentley, a Brit, is a Black Caps supporter. He is also head of the Work Research Institute at AUT University and has no qualms about mentioning the cricket as he describes how a day or two of teleworking is a routine part of his week.

"A lot of people, like me, find they write best or do certain tasks best from home and I'm sure that's true in almost every business," Bentley says.

"When I'm working from home and there's a test match in progress, I'll be honest, I'll have the TV on. But I will still publish well above the level my employer expects."

Besides the chance it offers to watch the cricket, Bentley has a special interest in working from home, as leader of a transtasman study of teleworking, or telecommuting - defined as working from home using information and communications technology to stay in touch with the office.

Although 40 years old, it is still a foreign concept to many organisations.

Telework Week, an event staged last November to promote working from home, was marked by many press releases but few headlines.

However, telework has come under the full glare of media attention more recently, since the head of struggling United States internet search company Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, said that from June work-at-home employees would be expected in the office. That policy, explained by Yahoo's head of human resources last month in a memo that was optimistically labelled "confidential", was all over the internet in no time. It was widely derided, not least because new mum Mayer had already been in the news for installing a nursery next to her office for son Macallister.

Commentators wondered whether Mayer's decree - ostensibly based on the belief that "some of the best decisions and insights" come from physically being together - was really aimed at culling staff.

Telework proponents also fretted that the example of a high-profile technology company reverting to traditional work practices would also set back the clock on flexible working arrangements.

Bentley has been enjoying the spectacle and rather than seeing it harming the cause, he thinks Mayer's unintentional raising of awareness of telework could have the opposite effect.

"There's a lack of understanding about it. It happens a lot informally, yet when you ask organisations if they do it they say no. But we all know people who work from home even if they don't have anything in their contract that says they can.

"There are estimates that 40 to 50 per cent of people in advanced industrial countries could work from home or could telework in some way, but when you ask people only about 10 per cent actually do."

Hard local data is lacking, hence the AUT study, which is being done in conjunction with Melbourne University's Institute for a Broadband Enabled Society.

In the US, PhD candidate Sharon Borowicz researched a related question - how managers retain trust in teleworkers - a decade ago.

Mayer's edict risks sacrificing more than just goodwill, says Borowicz, now head of the business administration programme at Benedictine University, near Chicago.

"You lose a lot of good people if you don't afford them flexibility - a lot of your female workforce who have to deal with children, who have to deal with home life, and maybe single parents who can't get away from home.

"Unfortunately a lot of managers are trained in the traditional way of managing people and don't have the special skills to engage those who are not 'in your face' every day."

Yahoo's new policy has "stunned" people in academia, where every day students demonstrate the benefits of working remotely, Borowicz says. Using internet-based collaboration tools such as Skype, for instance, students who also work are able to get degrees.

"There is a lot of good research showing there is a cost benefit [from teleworking]," says Borowicz. "Otherwise companies wouldn't have got into it in the first place."

Jack Nilles has dedicated himself to getting organisations into telework - and employees into telecommuting - for four decades. Nilles coined both terms in 1973, giving up a career as a Nasa rocket scientist to try to help unclog California's freeways.

His efforts as a teleworking consultant earned him a place in a BizTech magazine list of 10 "fathers of technology" last year, alongside world wide web creator Tim Berners-Lee and computer mouse inventor Doug Engelbart.

The author of several books on teleworking (his latest, Managing Telework, has disappeared from the Auckland Library, prompting Nilles to speculate that it's been stolen by a business manager who wants to keep its contents secret from rivals) says making it work is less about technology and more about management.

"We spend considerable effort on training both tele-managers and telecommuters in the techniques for working effectively together when they are apart. That means changing the traditional process-oriented management technique to one of emphasising the desired product.

"Skype and [Apple's] FaceTime are perfectly good substitutes for togetherness but it's not the technology that's important, it's the nature of inter-communication that is crucial.

"It is vital to keep communication alive and frequent but it is usually not necessary that it all be face-to-face. In fact, sometimes it is better that communication not be face-to-face.

"Yahoo's Mayer is misguided if she believes just having staff in the same place will lead to inspiration, Nilles says. Togetherness makes sense when assembling a new team or embarking on a new project, and for senior executives whose main job is schmoozing, but hinders the carrying out of detailed work, he argues.

In a blog posting after news of Mayer's edict broke, he wrote: "Telecommuters come into the office when togetherness is necessary and work at home or elsewhere when togetherness is an impediment. They tend to be better organised and focused than their in-office colleagues.

"They are more loyal to their employers, take less sick leave and are less stressed. That has been proven repeatedly over the years. Some estimates put the output of those who work from home at up to 40 per cent greater than office workers in the same roles. Yet wholehearted teleworking organisations aren't easy to flush out.

Some examples - telco Vodafone and telecommunications gear-maker Cisco - happily parade their credentials as employers with flexible work arrangements. But then, they also profit from the technology-based work practice.

Both companies were sponsors of Telework Week and Cisco commissioned the study being led by AUT's Bentley (see facing page). A 2009 survey by Cisco concluded it was saving US$277 million ($336 million) a year by letting its employees telecommute.

Vodafone UK, meanwhile, says it has eliminated the equivalent of 24,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions and is saving £11.5 million ($21 million) a year in travel and energy costs through flexible working.

That's only the half of it, says Bevis England, New Zealand's answer to Jack Nilles. "There are questions of work-life balance, business continuity - the subject is much broader than just reducing traffic," says England, whose company Telework New Zealand has been providing consulting services for 16 years. "The core thing is the productivity of out-of-office workers is generally proven to be much higher than in-office workers." England points to several examples of benefits:

• American Express and Hewlett-Packard call centres report 20 per cent higher call throughput from home-based staff than office-bound workers.

• Insurer Aetna reports real estate savings of up to $86 million a year.

• Another insurer, Cigna, introduced teleworking when its chief executive found he couldn't get to his office because of adverse weather.

When England researched the extent of teleworking in New Zealand about 15 years ago, as much as 20 per cent of the workforce had occasionally worked from home but only about 3 per cent had formal telework arrangements.

England thinks 4 to 5 per cent of New Zealanders have teleworking built into their contracts today, compared with 6 per cent in Australia. The US figure is 25 per cent. In an irony not lost on England, oil companies Shell and Mobil were early New Zealand telework adopters, and many big law and accounting firms also make the option available to staff. Often it's not referred to as telework, he says, but is part of flexible work arrangements offered to all staff.

England says Yahoo's edict has "reawakened discussion about face-to-face collaboration and whether the water-cooler effect increases or decreases productivity. "There is always a place for face-to-face interaction - I never recommend companies go with full-time telecommuting," he says. "Two or three days out of the office is okay, but people have to be in the office for some of the time so they don't lose contact."

Although informality often seems to be a feature of teleworking, lawyer Michael O'Brien at Kensington Swan has some advice for employers: they should document the relationship with teleworkers; and they should be sure they understand the relevant legislation, which includes the Employment Relations Act and the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

O'Brien says Kensington Swan is schooling itself in telework for its own use - the firm's senior lawyers are set up to work from home - and so it can advise customers. "It's part of the reality of where business has been and is moving. That's where our clients are going so we want to be up to speed with that."

The public sector also professes to be open to flexible working arrangements.

State Services Commission deputy chief executive Jacki Couchman says the SSC will let eligible employees work away from the office when appropriate for a defined period if that enables them to do their job more efficiently and conveniently.

The commission doesn't issue specific guidance to the wider state sector, however.

Chris O'Connell, a board member of the Telecommunications Users Association, thinks the government could be providing more of a lead by actively encouraging public sector teleworking.

"The main thing that works against teleworking is corporate culture and management distrust of employees," he says.

The government's approach is passive. An amended Employment Relations Act (see box, right) could be a spur and a further boost is possible from ultra-fast broadband and rural broadband projects.

O'Connell thinks the broadband investment could benefit rural women in particular.

"There are a lot of women who, if they marry farmers and end up living in the wops, could continue their careers if they had enough connectivity to telework."

Australia, which is building a national broadband network at about 20 times the cost of ours - A$40 billion ($50 billion) - doesn't want to leave the benefits to chance. It aims to double the proportion of employees who telework to 12 per cent by 2020, estimating that will lift gross domestic product by A$8.3 billion.

England supports setting a target. But in the end, like O'Connell and others, sees increasing teleworker numbers as a management rather than a technology issue.

"Teleworking done properly does deliver all the benefits of commuting savings, productivity gains and better work-life balance. But a lot of organisations go into it in a half-arsed manner thinking 'we'll just give them a laptop and send them home'.

"If they do that they're not going to get the benefits and they'll create problems."

- NZ Herald

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