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Managing TeleWorkers: Coming to Grips with Remote Control

March 15, 2011

​Telework has many names. Telecommuting, e-commuting, working from home and flexible work options are just a few. Regardless of what it's called, the practice of allowing employees to work remotely appears – almost universally – to pose a problem for managers.

​Studies across the world confirm that managers are suspicious of teleworking. In Australia, a 2010 report by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy revealed that 24% of Australian businesses claimed they allowed employees to undertake telework. But the same research by Access Economics also looked at the number of staff who were teleworking and discovered that only about 6% of the Australian workforce is on the job away from the office. The report concluded that, while industry appears comfortable with the idea and the perceived upside of teleworking, few managers actually encourage it or put processes and policies in place to make it happen.

Prevailing management attitudes fly in the face of mounting research that shows teleworking delivers positive outcomes for business. Global research by Telework Australia, an Australian government initiative aimed at promoting the benefits and methods of successful telework policies, offers eye-opening examples of the advantages for organisations that embrace the practice. For example, when 600-plus staff at Australia's dominant telecommunications provider, Telstra, participated in a nine-month home/remote office experiment in 2009, more than 32,500 kilometres of travel was avoided, staff members saved on average 84 minutes a day by not travelling to an office and, in five days, a total of 5.1 tonnes of carbon emissions were avoided.

Along similar lines, the City of Los Angeles discovered productivity of teleworking staff outstripped other workers' by 12.5%. Computer giant Hewlett-Packard realised a 20% productivity increase amongst teleworking call centre staff, while the City of San Diego measured a 34-40% increase in productivity among those who worked outside of the office.

Similarly, the financial results from encouraging telework were impressive. The New Zealand office of information technology services company Unisys realised net benefits of NZD$12,412 per teleworker in 2008, as well as a 7% year-on-year increase in staff engagement, following the introduction of optional teleworking. Over a period of seven years, vehicular safety testing company Autoliv Australia saved about A$3.6 million in reduced staff turnover, and insurer Aetna Health in the US has estimated it can save US$6 million a year by allowing 5% of its staff to telework.

Teleworking also has influential supporters. At a conference in May 2009, US first lady Michelle Obama noted: "I found that as I've managed staff, the more flexibility and opportunities that I gave them to be good parents, the more commitment that they made to working with me, the less likely they were to leave because they wouldn't find the same sort of situation somewhere else," she said. According to a Washington Post newspaper report, she emphasised that this management was about more than promoting family balance. "This is about making workplaces stronger and more effective, and keeping and attracting the most qualified people."

With evidence mounting for teleworking benefits, the obvious question concerns why so many managers are refusing to offer the option. "It's fear of the unknown," says Bevis England, director of Telework New Zealand and facilitator of the Telework Australia initiative. "Some managers are simply reluctant to change. They think 'if it ain't broken don't fix it'. But the system is effectively broken. In business, we have spent about 200 years learning how to cram people into concrete and glass mausoleums, justifying the rental expenses by claiming greater productivity. Now we are experiencing a new evolution in which we must unlearn those lessons."

Establishing Ground Rules

​Creating a successful telework environment involves more than simply providing staff with a laptop. A well-structured policy outline is required to create clear understanding and support throughout the organisation. The policy must contain guidelines and selection criteria, England says, to ensure only staff in appropriate positions are allowed to telework and to make it clear that telework is a voluntary option, not a rule.

"Not everybody wants to work from home," says Lee Ward, vice-president and general manager of information technology outsourcing at Unisys Australia. The team she manages teleworks in various locations from New Zealand to Hong Kong. "Some people opt to do it because they have other family at home, and some just don't want to be at home that much. You have to be respectful of that," Ward says.

The policy document should cover off a manager's concerns about controlling staff members once they are out of the office, England says. Appropriate levels of training before staff become teleworkers should be agreed upon, as should the expected method, type and amount of information exchange and general communication.

"In my own team there are only two people in Sydney." Ward says. "I have a half-hour meeting with every individual once a week in a virtual environment, whether on the phone or via teleconference. It's important to have that discipline. We also come together physically as an account team on a regular basis. And as an organisation we schedule regular events, from a quarterly meeting where we get everybody together to breakfasts or drinks after work."

Management style, for those who are not used to looking after teleworkers, must also shift from process-oriented to outcome-oriented management, Ward and England agree. Once the teleworker has the tools – the training, the information and the ability to do their job – the worker must then be trusted to get that job done and judged only by the outcomes of their efforts.

Teleworking Risks

​There are pitfalls if proper processes are not followed. For instance, thorough occupational health and safety (OH&S) checks must be carried out at the staff member's home or wherever it is that they to be working. Ward says that at Unisys they conduct a physical inspection of the home office, and even of a client's office if that is where their staff member will be working, to ensure strict OH&S standards are maintained. "Every business is responsible for their employee's safety no matter where that employee works," Ward says. "Sometimes it's just little things like having a fire extinguisher available. We also make sure the correct furniture is in the home office and if it's not, sometimes we send our own."

Michael Quinlan, a professor from the Australian School of Business, says home-based work, at least in specific industries, has historically been problematic as it often falls outside of the standard framework for protection. "If they are an employee, then at least in theory they should have a series of legislated protections," he says. "But in practice it's difficult to realise and it's often disputed terrain. Invisibility is always a problem when ensuring home workers receive their rights and entitlements. People in a large workplace are visible but the smaller the workplace the more problematic the issues become."

Quinlan points to the example of home workers in the clothing industry who have not only suffered significant problems of being underpaid but have also experienced a higher rate of sexual harassment, bullying and assault by those who give them the work. This is simply because they are far less visible than people working in office environments, he says. "Of course this happens in big workplaces as well," Quinlan says. "But the problem with telework is that people are working in isolation. There is nobody to see what happens or to protect them if an incident arises."

All the more reason for the formulation of a well-structured, all-encompassing policy document that is then built into the corporate culture and fully supported by it. "Once it works well, it works really well," Ward says. "As a manager you no longer care whether the work is done between 9am and 5pm, as long as it is done. Staff are able to manage their lives and get their work done at times that suit them, so it removes a lot of stress. You've simply got to break down a lot of the paradigms around what a working day actually is and, as a manager, around what you need to see versus what you don't need to see."
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