Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

Virtual Office – The Weekend Australian

Elizabeth Walton writes on Telecommuting in The Weekend AustralianHave me moved any closer to the reality of telecommuting? From The Australian, Wake up Australia, and Work!

Would your colleagues object if you went to the office in pyjamas? What about if you listened to the same CD all day, or burnt musk-oil at your desk? They wouldn’t know if you were working from home. And for some types of telecommuting, nobody minds whether you sign on for work at nine am or ten pm, so long as the job is done, and done well.

For a growing minority of the Australian workforce, remote-location work is a daily reality. Some call it ‘teleworking’, or ‘outstationing’. They telecommute from home for part of their work hours, and real-time-commute the rest. Others call it ‘hot desking’, or ‘hotelling’. They are typically on the road most of the day, they conduct most of their activities from mobile offices, and slot into a flexible-workspace when it’s time to do the flesh-meet with staff.

Telecommuting isn’t an universal alternative to showing up at the office, but it can offer enormous benefits. In the United States, 11 million people currently telecommute at least one day of the week. These people can spend more time with their families – rather wasting hours grid-locked in traffic jams. Studies conducted in all parts of the world show that when people work from home, productivity goes up and sick leave goes down. The family car stays put in the driveway – reducing road congestion and pollution. And the dry-cleaning bill goes down because suits stay in the wardrobe.

Companies need to choose carefully the tasks allocated to telecommuters. Typically, ‘piece-work’ such as data entry and word processing can be outstationed because they are tasks with productivity outputs which can easily be monitored. Companies also need to hand-pick the staff suitable for teleworking assignments. Qantas employs a small number of customer service agents who process telephone inquiries from home. The NSW Roads and Traffic Authority has staff who are stationed at regional branches, but telecommute to the head office in Sydney each day. Australia’s workforce also boasts a growing number of senior project-managers operating from home at least one or two days per week.

Kathie Blankenship of Smart Valley Inc in California says corporations can offer teleworking to staff as an incentive to stay with the company. “It can truly be a “win-win” situation,” she says, “because both parties have something to gain. For the employer it can be a means of retaining key employees or recruiting employees that would not have to travel the distance to the workplace on a regular basis. On the employee side, working from home can give you greater flexibility to manage the job and your personal life. The late hours at the office aren’t so bad if the office is just upstairs or in the next room.”

Some employees fear that taking the teleworking option doesn’t exactly fast-track your career. Nick Hough, president of the Australia Pacific Teleworking Association, says “it’s easy to be overlooked when promotions are being handed out if no-one can see you. But standing in the promotion line isn’t necessarily the only pathway to take in your career.”

The Bronco Buck of Aussie cyberspace is known by his boss as ‘Virtual Bill’. His motto probably reads ‘have card, won’t travel’. Bill Taylor is one of the new breed of home-based staff – the quintessential lone ranger netizen. Taylor lives in Sydney, and works at Somerset College in Queensland. “I remote control the file servers, the admin system and the web site from anywhere I have an internet connection. Working from home allows me to work when I’m full of ideas – although there is a constant reminder about the lawns that need mowing and the vacuuming that needed doing last month.”

Taylor’s work – leaving aside his domestic chores – highlights how teleworking can change work opportunities for people all over the world. This is especially so for people in remote locations – such as the farmers who access the internet through telecentres throughout rural Australia in areas like Katanning, Bega, Heyfield and Benambra.

Bet Young from the Kondinin Telecentre in Western Australia says some farmers in the local region use the centre to search for paid employment. “There are also several farmers in our area who use the internet to assist with farming queries, and a farmer in the Kulin district who runs the sales-side of his own business on the internet.”

The ACT Electricity and Water utility (ACTEW) is building a broadband communications network in the Canberra suburb of Aranda, which will emulate the office environment in the home. Jane Taylor of ACTEW says the pilot “will take fibre optic cable into the suburb to within 300 metres of every house.” Participants will be invited to trial a variety of services. The group plans to make the service available throughout Canberra by the year 2000.

Working from home raises occupational health and safety issues in just the same as any other workplace. Some employers are unsure whether their home-based workers are insured under Workcover. Nick Hough says they are. “The reality is that home-based workers are no different to salesmen travelling outside the workplace in a car. The whole issue is a red herring.”

So who supplies the equipment for home-based work? Ann Moffatt, director of the Technology Solutions group at The University Centre in Sydney, says it’s quite simple. “If the teleworker belongs to a large company, like say, Lend Lease, IBM, or Optus, then the employer pays. If the teleworker is freelance then the worker pays.”

Establishing a home-based office can sound like a large expense for companies. But it doesn’t seem so bad when the price of staff working in a city office is taken into consideration. Says Hough: “It probably costs around $5,000 to set up a telecommuter. But you’re spending that amount each year anyway for each data entry clerk taking up ten square metres of office space in the CBD.”

Some people say life can be lonely for teleworkers, without the constant interaction with colleagues. But Moffatt says teleworkers mostly have a good life. “The old furfy of lonely teleworkers is a myth. The issue is that many people now count their work colleagues as friends & have little time to establish ‘friends’ outside the office – take them away from the office and they are lonely!!”

(Just between you and me, I can strongly recommend telecommuting. I’m writing this article from my home-office 100 kilometres away from the nearest capital city. My colleagues can’t complain about my bad taste in music – because they can’t hear it. I’ve got a cozy log-fire burning by my side, and I may as well be wearing my PJs since it’s 3am. But as long as this story is emailed by 9 am, my employer will never know about my all-night stint, wink-wink, nudge-nudge!)

The Commuting Soapbox

In true Californian style, this is the place where telecommuters go to praise the virtues of telecommuting. Altogether now: “I once was lost in smog and office politics, but now am found safe’n'sound in my SOHO.”

Employer’s emporium

This site is filled with resources for companies who want to get a telecommuting program started – including a Superstore with free software that helps assess productivity.

Phone home, netizen

Telstra’s site explains the bits and bytes of telecommuting, and recommends relevant products and services. But be warned. The phone extensions listed on the site are out of date, so you need to pinpoint exactly which service you want information about before you call.

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