Over the past decade, we have seen a dramatic shift in the way technology is used by employees in the workplace. Portable hardware such as smart phones and laptops, and improvements in wireless communication has enabled employees to be connected to work from virtually anywhere.
Organisations that utilise these technological advancements to offer employees flexible working arrangements like tele-work, and which pay close attention to the management of the arrangements, are seeing the benefits. Benefits can include increased productivity, improved job satisfaction and staff morale and competitive advantages in recruitment and retention. Commercially, organisations are likely to benefit by being able to offer improved customer service through increased contact with employees and faster response times.
However, before embracing tele-work, organisations need to ensure that an objective assessment is undertaken to determine whether tele-work is suitable for the organisation and for the individual employees involved. Poorly managed arrangements can expose an organisation to significant legal and commercial risks.
What is tele-work?
The term "tele-work" or telecommuting covers a wide range of situations. For the purpose of this article, we have focused on teleworking in the context of working from home arrangements using technology and the use of portable technology, such as smart phones, laptops and personal digital assistants.
Technological improvements in intranets, extranets, document sharing techniques and broadband speed now enable employees to work effectively and productively from home.
With the use of portable technology, employees are able to take advantage of what would otherwise be lost time, such as waiting at airports or in taxis or when they are away on business trips. Portable technology also allows business to improve the service it offers to customers, with increased accessibility allowing employees to contact customers or respond to customer calls, transfer documents or respond to emails without having to wait until they return to the office.
Despite early predictions that technological innovation enabling tele-work would revolutionise the workplace, the adoption of tele-work is still in its infancy in Australia.
Organisational and cultural factors often serve as obstacles to the take up of tele-work. Managers can be reluctant to introduce working from home arrangements as it removes the level of supervision and control over employees with which they are familiar.
However, working from home trends are on the increase, albeit not at the rate that was initially expected. This increase appears to be driven by increasing employee interest aimed at creating a work / life balance. We are seeing, for example, working parents adopt a working from home arrangement for 1-2 days a week or working from home in the early mornings or evenings and attending the office during school hours. Similarly, as younger tech savvy employees enter the workforce, they are pushing for a greater level of integration of technology into their working arrangements. Some organisations are also allowing their employees to bring their own hardware (such as laptops, tablet PC's and smart phones) into the workplace to be linked to the corporate IT network.
Internationally, tele-work is also on the increase. The United States of America and the United Kingdom are leading the way, with an estimated 3 million employees primarily working away from the office in the United States 21 and, approximately 3.2 million people primarily working away from the office in the United Kingdom22 . Interest is also growing in Canada 23 , where it is estimated that around 1.4 million employees work primarily away from the office 24 .
In the European Union (EU), Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands have the highest prevalence of tele-work out of the EU member states 25 . However, many members of the EU are generally supportive of the development of tele-work.
In 2002, the European social partners 26 agreed to the European Framework Agreement on Telework (EFAT). The intention of the EFAT was to define a general framework for the use of tele-work across the EU in such a way as to meet the needs of employers and workers 27 . The EFAT identifies the key areas requiring adaptation or particular attention when people work away from the employer's premises, for instance data protection, privacy, health and safety, organisation of work and training 28 .
While the implementation of the EFAT was left for each EU member state to address independently, some EU governments took the step to enable tele-work through changes to their labour laws 29 . Other EU governments have taken a more supportive approach. For example, in the Netherlands employers are offered reduced social security contributions if they use tele-work for their employees 30 .
Japanese businesses are also embracing tele-work, which has, in part, been encouraged by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 31 . Hitachi Ltd has broadened the scope of its working from home policy to enable all of its employees to work from home.
Similarly, IT companies Softbank Corp and NEC Corp have also implemented tele-work plans 32 .
Globally, we are also seeing an increase in tele-work across international borders. International tele-commuting involves an employee working remotely in a country away from where the business is based, using technology to communicate with and connect to the workplace.
International tele-commuting allows organisations to outsource positions or whole departments in their business (such as a call centre) to lower cost countries such as China, India and Mexico. It also allows organisations to "follow the sun" and offer various services on a 24 hour, 7 day week basis. International tele-commuting also enables organisations to establish an offshore presence and draw on local knowledge through the use of local labour in countries other than where they are based.
It is generally accepted that there are significant benefits in implementing an effective tele-work arrangement. Some of these benefits are discussed below.
Many organisations are increasingly adopting tele-work practices because of the flexibility it offers employees and work organisation.
Tele-work offers employees the ability to request working arrangements that suit their personal lifestyle and responsibilities. For example, we are seeing employees choosing to work from home on certain days of the week or at certain times of the day in order to balance work with family responsibilities. A working from home arrangement has the added bonus of a reduction in time spent commuting.
Even full time employees who do not work from home are able to take advantage of tele-work through the use of portable technological devices that enable them to utilise what would otherwise be downtime (such as waiting in airports, on trains or in taxis) to send emails, update documents and respond to clients or customers.
Despite many organisations avoiding the concept of working from home because of views that employees will be less productive, what we are actually seeing is organisations finding that productivity is increasing.
This is attributable to less interruptions and distractions that flow from an office environment and also a greater dedication by the employee as a result of improved job satisfaction and morale.
Attraction and retention
Job candidates are increasingly basing their decision of whether to accept or reject employment on non-monetary benefits.
Younger workers who are generally technologically savvy often assess the flexibility offered by an employer before deciding whether to accept employment.
Offering flexible working arrangements such as tele-work is also an important tool not only for the current market of job candidates, but also in attracting workers who may otherwise choose not to engage in employment.
International tele-work also expands the labour market available to organisations. For example, telework arrangements can enable an organisation to take advantage of skilled labour based in another country.
The use of tele-work can also have a positive impact on equal opportunity. Tele-work offers flexibility to a variety of different workers that may otherwise be excluded from the labour market. For example, parents with children, older workers and workers with disabilities could all utilise tele-work methods to allow them to take up employment when otherwise it may not be a viable option.
In addition, customers may enjoy the increased contact that they are able to maintain with an organisation's employees due to the increasing use of portable devices.
Response times should improve as more employees utilise what would otherwise have been down time (such as time spent travelling) to respond to emails.
Despite these benefits, tele-work also attracts a number of risks that an organisation should consider.
Workplace health and safety
Employers are unable to waive the legal obligations that they owe to employees just because an employee is working away from the office.
Under each State's workplace health and safety legislation, employers are under an obligation to maintain the health and safety of employees during the course of employment. This includes while an employee is working away from the office.
Of course, ensuring a safe working environment for employees at their homes can prove difficult. Ultimately, employers should be visiting a home working environment to make an assessment on safety as in any other workplace.
When an incident does occur that results in an employee injury, the line between the injury occurring in the course of the employee's employment or outside the course of employment can be blurred.
A good illustration of this is the case of Hargreaves and Telstra Corporation Limited  AATA 417. In this case, an employee had an informal arrangement with Telstra allowing her to work from home 2 days a week. Telstra paid for an office to be set up on the first floor of the employee's house.
One evening while the employee was working in the home office, she suffered a coughing fit. As she went down the stairs to get some cough medicine, she slipped and fell down around 7 of a flight of 15 wooden steps. A few months later, after being instructed by Telstra to lock the front door while she was working from home, she left her home office to lock the front door after her son left for school and fell down around 5 of the steps after starting to cough.
As a result of her injuries she required shoulder surgery. The employee then began suffering post-injury stress and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal determined that both of the falls arose out of the employee's employment. In relation to the first fall, it was held that the employee's need to leave her workstation to relieve her coughing attack was a "necessity of nature" similar to a meal break or toilet break. In relation to the second fall, Telstra had instructed the employee to secure her house, so her action in complying with this instruction was within the scope of her employment.
Organisations implementing tele-work arrangements will need to extend their corporate IT network into the employee's home computer or mobile device.
Deficiencies in an employee's internet security pose a risk to valuable information that is stored on a company's corporate IT network. An organisation should maintain control of an employee's home and mobile technology systems and apply appropriate safeguards, such as:
- training the employee to maintain the security of documents, including electronic files;
- ensuring that home computers and mobile devices have appropriate secure access, password protection and anti-virus software; and
- configuring an employee's home work computer or mobile device in the same manner as an office computer.
The working environment should also be considered. Employees may be more likely to utilise internet hotspots (for example, free "wi fi" offered at coffee shops), which may pose a greater security risk as often it is unknown who controls the internet connection and what level of control they have on the data being exchanged.
Not all positions or employees are suitable for tele-work arrangements.
For example, positions that require a significant amount of face to face contact, such as client services, or require manual duties, such as construction, would not be suitable positions for tele-work arrangements. However, they would potentially be suitable for portable tele-work devices that would enable them to be contactable by customers and also enable them to undertake work when they are travelling or would otherwise be unavailable.
Similarly, not all employees are ideal candidates for working from home. Employees that require a significant amount of guidance, such as new employees, may miss out on valuable benefits that come with face to face contact in the workplace. Employees who lack self-motivation would also face difficulty in sustaining productivity if they were to work from home.
Employees who work from home miss out on the benefits that human to human contact offers. For example:
- Developing work relationships with people from the office often leads to a more positive and fulfilling working relationship. This can not be re-created electronically.
- The stimulation of exchanging ideas with colleagues, which may be stifled by the lack of quality in electronic communication.
- Tele-commuters miss out on exposure to informal role models from whom they can mirror behaviour.
- Impromptu discussions around the coffee machine cannot occur when you need to dial in to communicate with someone.
- Another major challenge of telecommuting is to minimise any feelings of disconnection by an employee in relation to the organisation or their team.
Managing the risks
Many organisations allowing their employees to work from home or use portable media do not have formal working from home policies in place. As working from home programs grow in both scale and scope, policy development in this area will become an important human resource management issue.
Policies will need to cover a wide range of issues such as work hours, contact and communication methods and internet and document security. We suggest that they are developed with employee input (where appropriate) in order to gain wider acceptance by employees, while bearing the organisation's strategic goals in mind.
Many tele-workers may be engaged on a full time basis, part of which they spend at home and the other part in the office. The benefit of this approach is that the face to face contact and guidance that can be provided by other employees is utilised, while maintaining the flexibility that telework offers. This approach will also avoid the isolation and disconnect that an employee may feel if they are working from home on a full time basis.
Employers should also ensure that employees are kept in the loop and invited to social functions, team meetings and included in all team communications. Regular check in times can also be adopted to ensure that the employee remains connected.
Health and safety
It would be beneficial for the organisation to arrange an inspection of an employee's home working environment to identify and minimise any potential hazards. Consideration should also be given to what equipment is necessary to maintain a safe working environment, including appropriate chairs (as many employees will work from their kitchen table), adequate lighting, first aid kits and smoke detectors.
The employee should also be trained in how to perform their job safely including how to avoid overuse injuries if this is a potential risk.
An organisation should also ensure that the employee is aware that they have a duty to report any potential hazards or injuries that occur in their home working environment and that there is a well defined process in place for this purpose.
Many employers have a concern that an employee working from home will not be as productive as if they were performing work in the office.
Technology can also act as a monitor with software now providing the ability to monitor keystrokes and take screenshots over time so that an employer can assess whether work is being performed. Employers considering these monitoring techniques do need to take care to ensure that they comply with their legislative obligations (for example, in New South Wales there is the Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 (NSW)). A good practice to adopt is putting in place a policy that sets out what surveillance will be undertaken and in what circumstance.
However, organisations not wishing to go down the path of surveillance can rely on trust and instead put in place outcomes as a measure of achievement.
Many organisations engaging in tele-working have reported on significant cost savings. For example, Shell Australia, who have an office of 250 employees in Melbourne with only 120 desks, have reported a reduction in travel costs and allowances together with lowering of fixed overheads in office accommodation 33.
IP Australia have also reported improved employee retention and engagement, additional individual productivity and reduced commuting as benefits of its tele-work program34 .
In 2009, Cisco (electronic communication and networks giant) reported that the company had generated an estimated annual savings in its global strategic consulting arm of $277 million in productivity by allowing employees to tele-work 35 . Cisco also reported, in 2008, that it had saved 47,320 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from being released into the environment due to reduced travel 36 .
IBM have also reported savings as a result of 40% of its approximately 355,000 staff engaging in some form of tele-work of around $100 million per year by reducing its real estate requirements by at least 2 million square feet 37 .
The pace of technological improvements just keeps on increasing and the opportunities to utilise these resources to provide flexibility to employees are already apparent.
While tele-work as an alternative work option will not suit all situations, it appears that it will be added to the vast array of flexible working options that may be offered to employees to assist in meeting the needs of an increasing number of employees striving to achieve work / life balance.
Given the potential risks that can arise, it is clear that organisations should plan tele-work arrangements with care to ensure that these risks are minimised. Policies and procedures with clear responsibilities, rights and expectations are vital to the success of any tele-work plan.
21 Lister, K and Harnish, T, "The State
of Telework in the U.S. – How Individuals, Business, and
Government Benefit", Telework Research Network, June
22 UK Labour Force Survey International Labour Review "Telework: A new way of working and living", 1999, Vol 129, No 5.
23 International Labour Review "Telework: A new way of working and living", 1999, Vol 129, No 5.
24 Statistics Canada study "Working at home – An update", July 2007
25 European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions "Telework in the European Union", 2010
26 The term "European social partners" refer to those organisations at EU level which are engaged in the European social dialogue, as provided for under Article 154 and 155 of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union (TFEU).
27 European Social Partners "Implementation of the European Framework Agreement on Telework", 2006
28 European Social Partners "Implementation of the European Framework Agreement on Telework", 2006
29 Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia have enacted legislation implementing the European Framework Agreement on Tele-work
30 European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions "Telework in the European Union", 2010
31 The Times of India "Tsunami: More Japanese firms embrace teleworking", 29 August 2011
32 The Times of India "Tsunami: More Japanese firms embrace teleworking", 29 August 2011
33 http://www.teleworkaustralia.net.au/resources/cases/ australia/shell.asp (accessed 8 September 2011)
34 Telework Australia "Teleworking in IP Australia", April 2011
35 http://newsroom.cisco.com/press-release-content?type= webcontent&articleId=5000107 (accessed 8 September 2011)
36 http://newsroom.cisco.com/press-release-content?type= webcontent&articleId=5000107 (accessed 8 September 2011)
37 Kelly, S, "To pad the bottom line, there's no place like home", Financial Week, 15 October 2007
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