Teleworking wins the rat race?
As digital technology advances, the potential for teleworking to improve productivity through reduced costs in office space, traffic congestion and employee wellbeing seem clear, yet many employers remain unconvinced.
11 July 2013
Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROpod. I’m Glen Paul. With advances in high speed internet and mobile platforms the opportunity for tele working or working from home is certainly very real, and there’s been plenty of hype around the benefits of reduced travel and congestion, better work/life balance, and productivity, that can be gained from it. Yet with all these promises the prevailing view is that tele working has yet to deliver this anticipated working from home revolution.
But that’s not to say it won’t happen. CSIRO’s Alan Dormer recently wrote that offices will one day be turned into museums, like locomotive repair shops and gas works, and your children will wonder how you managed to survive having to travel two or three hours in order to work for seven.
Now that’s an interesting statement, and I’m pleased to say Alan Dormer joins me on the phone. Now, Alan, for many of us that future can’t arrive soon enough, so why has tele working stalled?
Alan Dormer: I think it’s not for lack of technology, or lack of opportunity, it’s perfectly technically possibly now to work from home or work anywhere. What we think we’ve found is that it’s a matter of management maturity, and the inability of some organisations to believe that they can get the levels of productivity by people working from home, compared to when they’re in the office, where they can keep an eye on them.
Glen Paul: Hmm. Well I mean that’s something that honestly springs to mind when I hear, “So and so is working from home today,” it tends to conjure up this image of them out on the sundeck, feet up, drinking coffee, and perhaps checking their emails once every few hours. And I’m sure I’m not the only cynic, so how do we bring about a change in this kind of mindset?
Alan Dormer: Well I think there’s two sorts of people that might work at home, and there are different considerations for those. I think if you’re looking at back office workers, where the tasks can be quite easily measured and managed, for example people in Call Centres, or people doing fairly straightforward administrative tasks, like processing documents, it’s a lot easier to demonstrate that people have produced an output. I think the more challenging thing is when you get these knowledge workers, for example people like salespeople or project managers, where certain people we know can work their magic in a much shorter time than other people, and the question is are we paying for peoples’ time, or are we paying for what they actually produce for us?
Glen Paul: And that leads me to ask about the renaming of tele working, there is a push to call it anywhere working – again that kind of lends itself to sitting on the beach with your iPad or something – what does anywhere working really mean then?
Alan Dormer: I think it doesn’t mean anything, it’s really taking away the implications that tele work is trying to replicate the office experience at home. I’m always dubious of when people say there’s a new technology and we can do things the same only differently. I think the question is we need to do different things. So anywhere working to me conjures up the idea that you can be working wherever you are, maybe at your customer’s premises, maybe at your supplier’s premises, maybe at an airport lounge, or even a smart work centre. So the idea is to say if you’re in communication certain types of workers can be working.
Glen Paul: But then what of the water cooler style conversations that go on between peers at the workplace, which could lead to productive outcomes, how will working away from the office impact that sort of thing?
Alan Dormer: Yes, I think that’s an interesting point, and that was one of the reasons why the famous statement Yahoo was made, it said, “No more tele working because we’re an innovative, creative organisation, and in order to be innovative and creative we need to be together.” I think there’s some truth in that, and there’s also some research that says people can feel isolated and not part of the team and it can sometimes impact on their promotion prospects.
But I would say there are two counter arguments that you need to consider. The first one is that if you’re with suppliers and customers you may actually get even more good ideas, because you’ve got a more diverse set of people together. And the second thing, that if you’re in the office you can well be dragged into things that you don’t really want to be involved in, just because you’re there. So I think you should consider those arguments before you say that you won’t get the innovation and creativity that you otherwise would have done.
Glen Paul: So at this stage what percentage of Australia’s workforce would be actively anywhere working?
Alan Dormer: Well the statistics were gathered by the ABS, it was a while ago, but I don’t think things have changed too much, and they said that about 6% of people had what they called a formal arrangement for anywhere working. What that means is that they’ve applied to their HR and they’ve got specific permission to work from home.
There’s quite a few more, and it depends, but maybe double that have got what they call informal arrangements, but the research suggests that these people don’t really regularly work from home, what they do is they just do a bit more work in the evening, or they might spend the odd day working from home, so they don’t really count.
The government has set itself a target of 12% by I think 2020, which sort of joins with the rollout of the NBN and so on, so I think that could be an interesting development. And also, if you look at America, where the total is more like 10%, but it’s still a very small percentage of the workforce.
Glen Paul: How big an influence then will the NBN have on this aspect of digital productivity?
Alan Dormer: It’s difficult to say. We are doing some work around the impact of the NBN rollout, but obviously it is early days yet. I think the general view is that people will have a more reliable broadband, and it will also be symmetric, and what that means is it will enable videoconferencing to be done much more effectively. So there is an argument that says that high speed reliable symmetric broadband ought to be a force for good in allowing more people to work from home.
And it’s also interesting to point out there’s a lot of untapped potential in the workforce. I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago where the statement was made, and I’m sure it was a correct statement, that research shows that over 300,000 people in Australia don’t work because they can’t physically get to the office because of disability, or carers, or remoteness, so I think that’s a big statistic that we should bear in mind.
Glen Paul: So aside from technological drivers, what other aspects could bring on this work from home, or work anywhere revolution?
Alan Dormer: Oh, I think that definitely one is productivity. It’s well known that the services sector, being the dominant part of the Australian economy, has a major impact on the productivity, so if productivity in services is going up, then productivity across the economy will go up, and that the majority of potential anywhere workers are service providers anyway.
The second one is social inclusion, having more people in the workforce, or at least the opportunity for more people in the workforce. And I think people’s expectations are going up, they expect to be able to work and have a degree of flexibility that perhaps was denied to their parents. And I don’t think that’s going to change. If anything I think the new crop of workers coming out of universities now will have very high expectations of their employers and their employment practices. So that’s another force that will push towards more people working from home.
Glen Paul: Well it is a future I think many would like to be a part of, and there’ll be plenty of museums to look at if office space does go that way. (Chuckles).
Alan Dormer: Oh (chuckles), I was probably being a little bit controversial when I said that. But I just thought I would point out that in the Industrial Revolution people came together because they had to, and now for a lot of work they don’t have to come out, so maybe there will be an element of redundancy. It’s more likely that the offices will be converted into accommodation, but who knows?
Glen Paul: Well at least then that would address another social issue, so two for the price of one. It sounds like great science to me. Thanks very much for talking about the research with us today, Alan.
Alan Dormer: Thanks.
Glen Paul: Alan Dormer. And if you’d like to find out more about Alan’s work, or follow us on other social media, just visit www.csiro.au.