Professor Tim Bentley is the director of the New Zealand Work Research Institute at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), which last year undertook a major study of teleworking practices in New Zealand and Australian businesses - the Trans Tasman Telework Survey.
First up, how do you define telework?
It's a flexible work arrangement whereby workers work in locations remote from their central offices or production facilities with limited personal contact with coworkers, but with the ability to communicate with coworkers using ICT.
The key thing is are they using ICT to communicate not only with coworkers, but managers, staff, clients and others in an environment that isn't a central office. Even if they've always worked from a home office it can still be telework if that's an option they're taking rather than being located in a central office, because they're still getting the benefits of teleworking.
In terms of the survey, what did it involve?
It was a major study of trans-Tasman teleworkers across businesses of all sizes, with small businesses making up about 35 per cent of our sample. It involved 50 organisations, including 28 from New Zealand, and 1827 respondents, making it the biggest survey of its kind that's been done in region.
It asked detailed questions about teleworkers' experiences as well as that of their managers, and really looked at the outcomes of telework around things like productivity and wellbeing.
What did you find out?
The main findings were that people who telework very much enjoy that mode of working. Most were hybrid teleworkers, doing one to three days of telework a week - just 16% did more than three days a week - and the rest of the time they were in the office. In terms of where they did their teleworking, 85 per cent worked from home, with the rest shared out among different areas of the community such as in satellite centres, hubs and so on.
We found that hybrid teleworkers were more productive and they were more satisfied with their work, compared with those who worked solely in an office environment. However, when the levels of telework got quite high there were some issues around social isolation, stress and work/family conflict when the boundaries between work and home got a bit fuzzy. But in instances where the organisation provided good support for teleworkers - there was good communication, for example, and they had a manager who was supportive of telework - those issues went away.
One of the really interesting things we found was most didn't have any agreement to telework; it was mostly done informally and about half of all respondents didn't even have a verbal agreement to telework.
What are the implications of that, particularly in relation to small businesses?
With that level of informal teleworking, it seems to me organisations are not going to be measuring the benefits of it and they're probably not managing the appropriate goal setting and feedback processes for the time that's not spent in the office.
The message is organisations should look at the impact of teleworking and seek to measure the benefits, because they could be saving more than they realise from the likes of increased productivity and reduced office costs, as well as the environmental benefits and costs savings to employees. As part of that they should also ask whether some tasks are done more effectively at home or if some are better saved for time spent in the office.
Also, people rated their work environment very highly when they worked at home - much more highly than when working in an office in relation to their environment allowing them to do quality work and meeting the expectations of their managers.
However, there were some issues around the physical environment at home that could affect their work; things like their thermal environment - hot, cold, draughts - were an issue, as was noise and aspects of the workspace design - their desk space and so on. Yet when we asked, most didn't receive any training at all in how to telework, and certainly nothing on setting up a home office.
So another thing organisations can do is give these workers information and help in terms of setting up an office at home. It makes good sense from an organisational point of view because if you want good performance out of these people then you want them to work at optimum levels and for their sense of wellbeing and satisfaction to be high.
Coming up in Small Business: With Easter is on its way, I'll be looking at small business chocolatiers. If you're keen to get in touch, drop me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.