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Business needs to get serious about teleworking.

The federal government’s plan to have 12 per cent of the Australian Public Service regularly working from home by 2020, up from 4 per cent, made front page news this week. Less considered is why so few public servants work from home and why business needs to get serious about teleworking.

Why do so many companies still resist wholesale teleworking? Don’t they trust staff working from home, or does that bums-on-seats mentality persist? Perhaps some managers can’t get their head around staff working at home, or some staff are horrified at the thought of working on their own?

What’s your view?

  • Is your company flexible when it comes to teleworking?
  • Do you prefer working from home, and what are the pros and cons?
  • What's the ideal mix of work/office work?
  • Will companies need a much bigger telework workforce in coming years to survive?

For all the media talk, teleworking still seems a fringe issue for many businesses. For some, it’s a day here or there for workers and a flexible attitude towards occasional teleworking. For others, teleworking is more structured, but most work is still in a central city office.

Enlightened companies allow some employees to work almost permanently from home, have built teleworking into their corporate strategy, and reconfigured their office space. Such companies still seem rare given advances in teleworking technology.

I’m surprised that enterprises in struggling industries have not been more aggressive with teleworking. Take stockbroking as an example. A friend recently complained about the industry’s parlous state and questioned why his broking firm needed so much costly city office space.

Yes, they need a fancy address and swanky meeting rooms to impress retail and corporate clients from time to time, but not all that space housing stockbrokers who could just as easily work from home for part of the week. Halving office space would take a huge chunk out of the firm’s fixed costs and lift productivity. Maybe its teleworking approach is driven more by tradition than commerce.

Teleworking will surely have a bigger role in corporate strategy as the internet forces more companies to reconfigure their cost base to save the patient, rather than only trim the fat. By 2020, having 12 per cent of staff working regularly from home – even for the public service – will not be enough.

It’s a no-brainer that companies in struggling industries (think retail and media) will have to dump fixed costs and boost staff productivity to survive. Staff working from home is not the only answer, and it has risks, but it is surely one of the faster, simpler solutions.

I’m biased on this topic, of course. Having worked from home for five years, I can’t understand why companies have so many staff working each day in costly city office space. Some lose hours each day commuting, have less time with their family, are stressed, and their productivity suffers.

Yes, there can be downsides working from home: a feeling of isolation, if left unchecked; less productivity when staff are unsupervised; and for some companies, organisational culture, innovation and teamwork suffers when staff are in different locations.

Teleworking does not suit all companies in all industries. For some enterprises, it makes no sense. But I suspect too many companies resist teleworking for the wrong reason: namely, their ‘command-and-control’ management structure cannot handle the majority of staff working offsite.

I asked a handful of friends about why they don’t work more from home. A typical response was they needed “to be seen” putting hours in at work, and having a visible role in meetings was important to get ahead. Working too much from home, it seemed, was (office) political suicide.

That suggests their employers have terrible systems to measure employee performance, don’t trust their workers, and that teleworking has been barely considered in their strategy. Maybe companies have not had sufficient tools for teleworking and that much faster broadband, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in her teleworking initiative this week, will enable effective teleworking.

I doubt it. More likely is teleworking’s long-term potential remaining unfilled until big employers increasingly see it as a central part of their strategy, rather than only as a work/life balance initiative, or a way to attract and retain staff by offering flexible working arrangements.

Teleworking can give employees greater autonomy and control, and more time to invest in work or themselves. Over time, it will be a tool to help companies reconfigure from the ground up and ditch more fixed costs.  Better job flexibility and lower office costs will be useful by-products from teleworking, but nothing compared to helping workers act and think like businesses in their own right.

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