Federal Politics


The pros and cons of teleworking

Like the paperless office, the concept of working from home has been slow to take hold in Australia. In 2009, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that just 6 per cent of all Australian employees had agreements with their employers to work part of the time away from their usual base. The figure is slightly lower in the public sector, with only about 4 per cent of public servants operating primarily from home.

The concept of teleworking has been canvassed since at least the advent of computers in the office and home. The ascent of the internet gave it further impetus. What has dramatically reduced the need to be in the office, however, is the rapid uptake of smartphones and tablet computers and the proliferation of broadband connections. Indeed, many people who work in so-called knowledge-based industries could easily work from home for one or two days a week, provided they had a broadband connection and an employer willing to provide the technological means (such as virtual private networks) to do so.

The advantages of teleworking scarcely need spelling out. Employees are freed from the burden of spending time and energy getting to and from work, which in turn has social and environmental benefits. Employers can downsize premises and begin ''hot-desking'', saving on office running costs and fuel bills. The productivity benefits of this are obvious. People who work in quieter, more pleasant environments where interruptions are minimised are free to concentrate fully on the tasks at hand. By allowing people to begin and end work when it suits them, or to lay work to one side when family duties call, teleworking offers the potential to achieve a better work-life balance.

There is a less salubrious aspect to remote working, however. We are social animals, who enjoy, and benefit, from the personal interactions and the collegiality that are part and parcel of working in a large office. The advent of web phones, video calls and social networking has enabled us to establish and maintain close personal connections with people from across town and across the world, but the fact remains that teleworking can be an isolating experience. Self-starters or those with strong work ethics usually adapt best to working at home. Other, less-disciplined, workers can find themselves frittering away time very easily.

One less obvious drawback with teleworking is the potential it creates for a blurring of the divisions between work and home life, with all that this entails for doing unpaid overtime and pushing family duties unfairly to one side. Jealousy and resentment among those not considered senior enough (or perhaps sufficiently trustworthy) to work at home could also be an issue with teleworking.

Not every job lends itself to being done remotely, and many of those that do obviously require some element of supervision. It would be a rare, and perhaps unwise, employer who excused an employee working remotely from the requirement for regular face-to-face contact, or who gave the impression that such workers were ''favoured'' in some way.

Although the technology now exists to allow more of us to work from home, the number who are actually doing so remains quite low. One of the impediments to a greater take-up is cultural. For a century or more, the near-universal work practice has been the one that entails arriving at the office at 9am (or 7am at the factory), taking an hour's lunch break and then knocking off at either 3pm or 5pm - a habit repeated from Monday through to Friday. That this model has appeared to withstand profound changes in technology and work practices says more about the contemporary nature of the changes than it does about any innate conservatism in society. Nonetheless, the idea continues to elicit raised eyebrows among certain employers.

In an attempt to turn such entrenched attitudes around, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has committed the Australian Public Service to having 12 per cent of its employees regularly working from home by 2020. There is, of course, a political as well as an economic motive for setting such an ambitious goal. Labor's national broadband network is being touted as an unprecedented opportunity to post significant productivity gains, and it is not surprising that the government should feel it needs to lead by example. With teleworking expected to add an extra $3.2 billion a year to GDP by 2020-21, smart private sector employers will consider setting their own such goals. Just as it was before the industrial revolution, the home may once again become the principal place of work.