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Teleworking still a distant dream for most

Alan Dormer (via AFR) | June 25, 2013
The real questions with teleworking are those of productivity and the wellbeing of the individual worker.

Teleworking still a distant dream for most
The real questions with teleworking - or Anywhere Working - are those of productivity and the wellbeing of the individual worker.Photo: Rob Homer

In the 1980s and '90s, the potential for telework appeared unlimited. First the PC, then laptops and later, the internet, offered the complete solution to out-of-office working. The benefits of reduced travel and congestion, better work-life balance and productivity were just around the corner.

Indeed Alvin Toffler in The T hird Wave (1980) said that the information age could shift literally millions of jobs out of the factories and offices, into which the Industrial Revolution had swept them, right back to where they came from originally: the home. Twenty years on, the prevailing view is that telework has not lived up to the hype and delivered the anticipated revolution. So what happened?

One small development is the move to rename telework as Anywhere Working (AW). In essence, AW is the same as telework but the latter is often interpreted as, or limited to, working from home. AW is also better as a concept because we are not (implicitly) seeking to replicate the office experience at home. Indeed, we may not work at home. The workplace may be a café, shared services, or at a customer or supplier location.

One could argue that the impact of AW is still small. A 2011 Deloitte report, Next Generation Teleworkcommissioned by DBCDE (Department of Broadband, Communication and the Digital Economy), identified fairly low levels of workers who have a formal agreement for AW - around 6 per cent across all sectors. The US has an average of about 10 per cent. Australia's is lower, but the gap is not so large as to suggest that Australia is fundamentally different or lagging behind.

Informal AW was noticeably higher than formal, but this was identified as mainly day extenders or less than eight hours per week. There was also evidence that AW in the public sector was lower and going backwards, despite having a target of 12 per cent by 2020. At Yahoo!, the chief executive has put a stop to formal arrangements for out-of-office working, citing the benefits of working side-by-side, communication, collaboration and impromptu meetings. But for other organisations, AW works.

For example The Economist reported the results of a study at CTrip, a NASDAQ-listed travel company. During a controlled experiment, productivity gains of 13 per cent and savings of 22 per cent were observed with AW, along with higher levels of job satisfaction, productivity and wellbeing. And the counter-argument to the point that water-cooler conversations solve problems and stimulate innovation, is the point that time-consuming, unproductive meetings draw people in just because they are there.


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