Teleworking: is home the 21st century office?

The greatest inhibitor is the outmoded mind-set of New Zealand employers towards staff performance, says report

If an employee is paid to be at home during office hours and nobody is there to see them will they get any work done?

That is the question facing employers as broadband comes of age. Teleworking is for many the raison d’être of ubiquitous fibre to the premise (FttP) networks. But it doesn’t only require a step change to better broadband infrastructure; it requires a change in mindset too.

This is why TUANZ has just published its “Special report on teleworking”. It’s a guide for CEOs, CIOs, IT managers and contact centre managers and indeed anyone in a corporate environment looking to retain skilled staff and boost productivity.

The author of this commissioned report, Anna Verboeket, found during the course of her research that while there is a raft of good reasons for teleworking, it’s a hard road convincing employers to give it a go.

“The greatest inhibitor is the outmoded mind-set of New Zealand employers towards staff performance,” she writes in the introduction. “The old-fashioned view that if people aren’t in the office they’re skiving.”

Yet the evidence in better connected countries is that teleworking is on the rise — 16% of US employees and 17% of Australian employees (excluding the self-employed) already enjoy the benefits of working from home. And it’s estimated that by 2010 in Europe there will be as many as 50 million employees who will spend at least part of their week working remotely.

Meanwhile, the section of the New Zealand workforce engaged in teleworking is, according to Statistics NZ, as low as 1.8%. What are the reasons for such a small showing — it can’t just be a lack of trust in the employer/employee relationship? And it isn’t. IDC analyst Rosalie Nelson says the cost of telecommunications, especially for small to medium business operators, is also inhibiting the adoption of teleworking.

“The need to increase workforce mobility in order to improve productivity is increasing, (but) for small businesses the challenges of managing a remote workforce and the cost of IT&T are still a barrier, even if quite functional solutions exist,” she says.

Yet, despite the relative newness, and the obvious barriers (not every employee will have broadband at home), there are companies willing to take the plunge and make a go of teleworking.

Unisys NZ has 550 staff spread across offices from Auckland to Dunedin and every one of them has the option of teleworking. A VPN client is loaded on to staff laptops, and all that is required is internet access. Then, as Verboeket explains in the TUANZ report, staff at Unisys NZ can decide what kind of employee they wish to be.

“At Unisys you can be a ‘homer’ (permanently office based), a ‘roamer’ (working at either client sites, home or the office) or a ‘zoner’ (predominantly based at another location).”

Terry Shubkin, who is responsible for account management and service delivery at Unisys, says it’s about making employees accountable for their output: “We set objectives. As long as you achieve them, we don’t care how you choose to work.”

The benefits of teleworking for Unisys are measurable — the HR department recorded that staff engagement jumped 6-7% in one year, a factor they’ve credited in part to the company’s teleworking policies.

Then there is SalesForce NZ, which operates outsourced contact centres, and has modelled its practices on its US counterpart, where more than 112,000 agents work from home. Locally the number is a more modest 30 home-based agents but the number is growing and SalesForce management is finding a real demand from potential agents for teleworking opportunities.

New Zealand CEO Alan Alcock says the company recently received 300 applicants for one advertised position, however 45% were automatically ruled out because they didn’t have a broadband connection.

Successful teleworking isn’t just about the right technology, and it isn’t only about trust; it’s also about maintaining the legal obligation an employer and employee have to each other across the geographical divide that separates home from office.

What is the onus on the employer to maintain a remote working environment that conforms to occupational health and safety standards? It appears it’s a grey area as to who should be taking ultimate responsibility, but what is clear is that a prudent employer will seek some tangible assurance from their employee that their workstation at home conforms to basic regulations.

Then there is the question of professionalism. It might be fun for phone companies to create television commercials featuring pyjama-clad workers stumbling to the computer, or a glamorous woman making a virtual appearance at a board meeting while her partner paints her toe nails beneath the desk, but as an employer do you really want a distracted workforce?

During the SalesForce presentation on teleworking at the TUANZ Contact Centre Conference this year, Andrew Hume, the company’s chief operating officer in Australia, told delegates that home-based agents are monitored via a webcam. Their entire working space must be visible and one “thing” they are not allowed in the room is a baby.

As soon as that teleworker logs on for a shift they face the same dilemma as the millions of parents who physically travel into an office — childcare.

Whatever the ways that employers choose to monitor the staff they have working remotely, smart managers should take note that teleworking is a prevailing trend that is being touted by many as a measure to combat the world economic downturn.

In the TUANZ report, Saatchi and Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts says businesses should respond to recession with innovation: “You will be punished if you don’t get started.”

Domestic research is emerging which shows there is a real thirst for teleworking among New Zealanders. In a report by the Auckland Regional Broadband Advisory released this month titled “Open access broadband in Auckland: demand, costs and benefits” it was noted that of the 299 households that participated in the phone survey, those in the highest income bracket were the most attracted to teleworking:

“The ability to work from home was one of the most frequent benefits of high-speed broadband identified by households earning over $100,000 per year, with 81% of households in this bracket pointing to this as a benefit.”

In an entirely different survey TUANZ polled 291 people at the New Zealand Agricultural Fieldays in Hamilton in June and of the 272 who had an internet connection, the second most popular reason for wanting a high-speed broadband connection was the ability for someone in the household to engage in teleworking.

Demand for teleworking is likely to grow as petrol prices rise and the focus for many employees becomes a sustainable lifestyle which supports a healthy work/life balance.

Yet perhaps the most significant finding in the TUANZ special report is not that teleworking can be achieved — with a little know-how from employers and employees it’s a cost effective option — it’s that it isn’t being encouraged at the highest level. While overseas in countries such as Britain and Australia, official agencies are investing heavily in teleworking; Verboeket found that it simply doesn’t feature on the New Zealand government’s radar.

“Arguably teleworking should provide impetus for, rather than be a consequence of, policies to roll out broadband and improve the economic sustainability of businesses, but the New Zealand Ministry of Economic Development and the Department of Labour say they’re not undertaking any policy work on this topic.”

• The TUANZ “Special report on teleworking” — which includes practical ideas on how to commence teleworking — is free to TUANZ members and is available at $44.95 to non-members. Email sarah@tuanz.org.nz for more information.

Sarah Putt is policy and communications manager at TUANZ

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