During the last decade, we’ve seen many new organizational forms emerge from computer and tele-communications technology. Virtual enterprises, self-managed work teams, fast and efficient computer networks have created an entirely new model for work.
During the last decade, we’ve seen many new organizational forms emerge from computer and tele-communications technology. Virtual enterprises, self-managed work teams, fast and efficient computer networks have created an entirely new model for work. Now, information and knowledge is in the client’s office, at the beach and the mountains, and even at the lunch and dinner table. The internet allows access to information anywhere, anytime — not just in the “traditional” office. Thus, employees can be anywhere and be very productive.
The concept of Tele-Work has been embraced by employers as a means to cut costs, attract the best talent and remain flexible and customer focused. When employees “hotel,” a system in which up to ten people share the same office space or cubicle, real estate costs can be reduced. Also, fewer workers commuting to work every day means Clean Air Act requirements can be more easily satisfied. The best and brightest talent often appreciates Tele-Work because many commuting hassles can be eliminated, schedules are more flexible and there is more time for family, especially young children. In many cases, sales/marketing and service/operations people can be closer to customers, which is one of the keys to success in business today.
Benefits for employers
– Cost savings. The main savings are in premises costs, office overheads and labour. Companies adopting telework methods achieve significant reductions in total office occupancy. Work can be carried out wherever the appropriate skills are available at the optimum mix of costs and other factors. In some circumstances recruitment costs can also be reduced, as can the costs associated with high staff turnover (attrition) rates. If a company adopts a total “flexible working” strategy, all costs associated with relocation of staff can be eliminated.
– Increased productivity. Productivity increases of 40% have been reported, though a range of 10%-40% is probably more typical across a large-scale programme. Teleworkers avoid travel time and the interruptions of a office environment. Both teleworkers and their managers consistently report significant productivity gains.
– Improved motivation. In successful programmes, employees respond well to the signal of trust and confidence indicated by the employer’s adoption of more independent work styles encouraged by teleworking.
– Skills retention. Employees who might otherwise leave can remain in their jobs, for example when the family moves because of a job change by another family member who works in a non-telework company. Employees who take a career break can continue working part time and remain up to date with the business and its methods. Employees who take maternity leave can continue to undertake some tasks and require less retraining when they return to work full time.
– Organisation flexibility. In the event of restructuring and reorganisation people can continue to work without disruption to their personal lives. People work in dispersed teams that can be assembled and reassembled as the needs of the enterprise change. Teams representing the best skills and experience for a particular project can be created, regardless of geography and time zones and with a minimal need for extra travel.
Flexible staffing. In activities that generate peaks and troughs of workload, telework can enable staff to work limited hours to match peak workload, without the staff concerned having to travel. In limited hours working the travel element can otherwise become as long as the work time. In some cases staff can be on “standby time” at home at retainer rates and then paid at higher rates when needed for active work.
– Resilience. Organisations with effective teleworking programmes are more resilient in the face of external disruption – for example transport strikes, severe weather, natural disasters or terrorist action.
Enhanced customer service. Customer services can be extended beyond the working day or the working week without the costs of overtime payments or the need for staff to work (and travel) at unsocial hours.
Benefits for individuals
– Reduced travel time and costs. This is the most obvious benefit and, for many teleworkers, a primary motivation. In our surveys, most teleworkers have used at least part of this time to get more work done, in contrast to the “relaxed lifestyle” image painted by the media.
– Improved work opportunities. Work opportunities are not confined to jobs within reasonable commuting distance.
– Less disruption to family life. An effective telework and flexible working programme reduces the need for relocation to take up “career moves” and other job changes.
– Better balance of work and family life. Even though the teleworker may put in more hours of effective work, he or she can still expect to see more of the family and can more easily participate in home responsibilities such as ferrying children, shopping etc.
– Participation in the local community. An important benefit for many rurally based teleworkers is being “on the spot” to participate in community activities – for example as a school governor or in local clubs and societies, at a time when commuters are still en route.
– Flexible hours. A flexible approach to working hours often accompanies the successful teleworking programme. Each individual has a personal daily “rythm” – some are at their most lively and creative in the early morning, some late at night. Typical commuting patterns and office hours condemn everyone to work roughly the same timetable, while a flexible telework approach can mean individual freedom to stop and start according to what works best.
Social and economic benefits
– Reduced traffic congestion. In the most intensive commuter areas its quite noticeable how much more easily the traffic flows when even ten percent of commuters are away on holiday. Our study of transport-telecommunications substitution for the UK Department of Transport confirmed that even on days when teleworkers commute, they tend to choose off peak times.
– Reduced total travel and consequent pollution. The same transport-telecommunications substitution study also confirmed that teleworkers do generate a worthwhile net reduction in total car travel. In California and some other states, there are legal or fiscal programmes aimed at encouraging telework as part of a battery of anti-pollution measures.
– Wider employment/work opportunities. Potentially, telework can enable people in an area of high unemployment to have access to work opportunities that arise anywhere world wide.
To take advantage of this, either the individual must have skills that are in high demand and plus well developed personal skills in electronic networking that will bring their competence to the attention of appropriate employers, or the local community must take steps to establish itself with a high profile on the networks so that “distance working” opportunities are generated for local people.
– Access to work for people with specific difficulties. Telework can also enable access to work, training and social interaction for people who have specific problems – for example those with disabilities that make it difficult to travel to work or to do a normal nine-to-five working day; single parents who need to be at home for the children; carers with responsibility for an elderly or sick relative. Again, special measures may be needed to make such access realisable.
– Economic regeneration. Telework and teletrade are central to future opportunities for trade and work and should now be an important element of any economic regeneration programme.
However, Tele-Work is not without its problems. There are many potentially troubling issues of communication, relationships and working space at home. None of these considerations is necessarily a barrier to telework, they just illustrate how things can go wrong if a telework programme isn’t well thought through. If we do get someone teleworking in the wrong setting doing a task that’s inappropriate, we must expect problems. Communications equipment. Phones, fax, internet access and computers/modems/e-mail will be necessary. Without these, rapid information access and data transfer in today’s world is nearly impossible. But will the employer or Tele-Worker pay for them? And, who will pay for the inevitable expensive upgrades as technology marches on?
– The person
Home based telework is inappropriate for some people – for example those who have poor personal motivation and are not “self starters” may need the external discipline provided by set hours and a managed environment. There’s also a case to suggest that young people entering work for the first time may benefit greatly from working in a conventional team setting in their early years. For some people, “going to work” is an important part of their lives, and the “place of work” is where they make friends and develop their social skills and contacts. A “telecentres” approach may address some but not all of these issues. Interruptions by small children during working hours can reduce productivity, since they often aren’t cared-for by another family member, or aren’t in a day care center. Similar and consistant training for both in-office and Tele-Workers often is difficult to conduct. But without this, one of the two groups will become more advanced in technology, as well as in the ability to access, input, store and/or transfer information and data.
– The place
Many homes are not well equipped for some kinds of telework. For example even the most highly motivated individual could have problems focusing on and completing a series of concentrative tasks in a small apartment with children underfoot and noisy neighbours on the other side of a flimsy wall. A “telecentres” programme would be more appropriate in this case. “Off-limits” office space. Even though a DO NOT ENTER sign is on the office door (and there must be a door!), family members may interrupt during business hours, saying “emergencies” exist. Kids playing. A home office computer and other communication equipment can be enticing to kids. They may even try to install games. This can really foul-up work programs.
– The employer organisation
Some companies have management systems and cultures that are not (yet) well adapted to the flexibility that telework can entail. Our survey of UK managers’ opinions showed that there are many manager who lack confidence in their ability to “manage at a distance”, and also those who lack faith in their staff’s commitment and so feel that home based workers would be inclined to underperform. Communications with colleagues at the main or regional office sometimes doesn’t occur often enough. Without this “schmoozing” about ideas, people, plans, happenings and even gossip, a sense of isolation and dislocation may set in.
– The work task
Not all tasks are best performed in a distributed, self managing environment. There are many tasks that gain considerably from the very close interactions of a team working together in one room, or from the synergy of closely supervised teams. Examples include some kinds of design or other creative work, where the very casual “rub off” of the studio or research setting is an important part of the creative process. In some customer service or sales activities there’s an advantage to the kind of team spirit and internal motivation that can best be generated by leaders and managers sitting in with the teams and “leading from the front”. Some of our colleagues also feel that a high proportion of clerical work may best be undertaken in a closely managed setting.
What we’re really dealing with here is managing people and distance, and there are some very effective methods to do this. Tele-Workers can be trained in the dos and don’ts of car, home and/or small office management, as well as in computer and communication equipment operation. Additionally, in-office workers can “schmooze” with the Tele-Workers, thus making them feel they’re a necessary part of the organization. Select the “right” employees for Tele-Work. These will be people who can both structure and motivate themselves. If past performance doesn’t indicate who these employees are, use assessment profiles that can help discover them. Provide consistency of career pathing throughout the organization — for both in-office employees and Tele-Workers. This should include equality in advancement, incentives, performance and appraisal. Support Tele-Workers from top management down to clerical staff. These employees must never feel they are “out there alone.” Support includes continued communication from the main office, as well as negotiating a “fair” split of costs for home office equipment.
Traditional organizations are changing dramatically. Office walls, structures and traditions are crumbling because of microchips, LANS and the internet, along with new ways of using them. If we are truly in the information age and the virtual organization, it is the way in which people, distance, and information/data are managed that will determine the winners and losers.