Bush Telegraph

Is ‘Work-from-Home’ the Future?

That is unlikely to be a plank of the Labor election manifesto. Rather, it is part of his view of teleworking, the practice of enabling (or allowing) staff to work from home instead of commuting to a central office. Shorten was speaking at the end of last year at a conference in Melbourne to open Australia’s first National Teleworking Week – to which, logically, no one should have turned up. He was explaining the discovery of what is often referred to as the first ever ‘office’, by the New York Metropolitan museum’s resident Egyptologist Herbert Winlock in 1920, when he found the tomb of royal chief steward Meketre, “a long-suffering loyal bureaucrat and office worker under several Pharaohs, who had the privilege of being buried with one of them round 4000BC.”

At the core of the building, in a separate room, were four scribes squatting on the floor with writing equipment strewn around them – ink pots, sheets of parchment – engaged in the unchanged clerical task of copying and record-keeping. “Herbert Winlock, I would submit to you, found the origins back then of the modern office,” said Shorten. “While I don’t believe we should be squatting any longer on stone floors scribbling on parchment – and if you do, please contact my office and we’ll contact the Fair Work Ombudsman – I would submit that the idea of the ‘workplace’ is as old as civilisation itself.”

I first came across teleworking while on assignment for the London-based Institute of Directors more than 20 years ago, when on a trip to chilly Sweden, I wrote and dispatched my story from a ‘telestuga’ on the main street (indeed, the only street) of a tiny village some 50 kilometres south of the Arctic town of Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden, which itself boasts no more than 19,000 residents. I was investigating whether to recommend this new form of employee-employer relationship to our members. The telestuga was basically a community centre with attached desk space for ‘rent’ at a peppercorn rate and advanced communications facilities – this was before everyone had internet at home. The theory was that people would walk – or make a short drive – from their home to this centre and use it as an ‘office’.

The concept was designed to overcome some inherent local disadvantages. While the summer was sparkling and the sunlight never-ending, winter was not a time for being alone, let alone driving far enough to get to one’s office in the nearest town (to illustrate: the law says you must carry an axe in your car – to dispatch any unfortunate elk you happen to hit). It was a time for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD, ha ha) which hits Scandinavians when they see no more than a couple of hours’ twilight for six months instead of ‘daytime’. Hence the idea of sitting in a room with others to ease the gloom.

At the time, it was confidently predicted that this kind of innovative thinking (of which a concurrent manifestation was the GSM mobile-phone network and Nokia’s consequent decade-long superiority. My first ever mobile call was made from the top of a Finnish ski-jump) would see as many as 40 per cent of all working Swedes earning their living without commuting. Yet by 2003 the number was just 7 per cent and two years later it was down to 5 per cent.

Elsewhere too, teleworking has been hailed as a supremely good idea for both employers and their staffs. Stanford University researchers recently detailed their investigation into CTrip, China’s largest travel agency with 16,000 employees. Its senior management were interested in allowing its Shanghai call-centre employees to work from home because they perceived potential benefits from reducing office rental costs, which were increasing rapidly due to the booming real estate market in Shanghai, and from reducing high attrition rates. But the executives worried that allowing employees to work at home, away from the supervision of their team leaders, would lead to a large decrease in productivity. The call centre workforce was mainly younger employees, many of whom might well have struggled to remain focussed working from home without direct supervision. Many CTrip employees were also interested in working from home to save on commuting time and costs. However, they worried about the isolation of working from home and that it would reduce their chances of promotion.

In a nine-month experiment, a randomly selected group of workers stayed home. The result: “Home working led to a 13 per cent performance increase, of which about 9 per cent was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick-days) and 4 per cent from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter working environment). Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction and experienced less turnover, but their promotion rate conditional on performance fell. Due to the success of the experiment, CTrip rolled out the option to work-from-home to the whole firm and allowed the experimental employees to re-select between the home or office. Interestingly, over half of them switched, which led to the gains from WFH almost doubling to 22 per cent.”

In Australia, the government’s aim to increase the take up of telework is part of its National Digital Economy Strategy, which aims “to position Australia as one of the world’s leading digital economies.” The telework goal is “to double Australia’s level of telework by 2020, so that at least 12 per cent of Australian employees have a telework arrangement with their employers.” That would see this country overtake the US in the proportion of people working at home. All well and good, and there are useful resources for employers (including an RoI calculator) and employees alike at www.telework.gov.au. But, given this country’s geography – much of it remoter even than Sweden – shouldn’t that 12 per cent be a lot bigger?

Note the canny Chinese concern about being passed over for promotion. As a group of top academics at MIT observed two years ago: “companies rarely promote people into leadership roles who haven’t been consistently seen and measured. It’s a familiarity thing, and it’s a trust thing. We’re not saying that the people who get promoted are stars during every ‘crucible’ moment at the office, but at least they’re present and accounted for. And their presence says: Work is my top priority. I’m committed to this company. I want to lead. And I can.” The suggestion is that if you don’t turn up in person each day, you get forgotten.

Employers are astonishingly reluctant to trust their staff. You would think that, having taken someone on and trained them, you might begin to have some faith in them, but you might also be amazed how many major corporations forbid teleworking altogether, mainly because they feel staff would be surfing the real waves and not the internet (it’s patchy too. In the US, for example, JetBlue Airlines’ call centre employees all work from home, while American Airlines does not allow any home work).

The government reckons it will work. Julia Gillard said, “I believe teleworking can become an increasing feature of the Australian workforce, meaning people don’t have to do a long commute. A section of their work can be done at home or a section of their work can be done in local business centres where they’re doing a very short commute to the centre of their community, rather than a long commute to the CBD. Telework also opens up new opportunities for people in regional Australia.”

It won’t suit everyone – you may actually prefer to get out of the house for eight hours a day – or every job (security issues rise in lock-step with the power of the internet and the popularity of cloud computing). Whether the NBN will actually make any significant difference is a moot point – many observers believe most people can work with the internet they have already. But teleworking deserves more consideration as an option, because it can, in the right circumstances, enhance the work-life balance equation. I know. You wouldn’t believe where I am filing this from…

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

September 25, 2018, 8:17 AM AEST