One of the biggest barriers to successful telework arrangements is not the productivity of staff members working remotely, but their managers, says Macquarie University researcher Dr Yvette Blount.
“We haven’t got a problem at the CEO level or the senior management level – conceptually they get that offering flexible work practices like telework is an important thing,” she says.
HR departments, particularly in large organisations, already have policies in place to field flexible work requests; employees, too, are generally on board.
“But when you talk about the managers that have to manage this whole situation, that’s where there’s still a bit of an issue, because there is some management resistance to this,” she says.
“You have to think about communication, you have to make sure your employees don’t feel isolated, you have to make sure that the employees who aren’t physically present still know what’s going on in the organisation and are part of that culture.
“[Managers] have to have the skills to be able to manage these people, and I think that’s missing.”
Blount, a research coordinator for the Australian anywhere working (telework) research network, says the problem is understandable – but not insurmountable.
A lot of organisations are already sold on telework. Their managers have the support they need and are doing it well. As more success stories get out and benefits are realised, attitudes will change, she says.
Coupled with training and policies designed to guide and support managers, these success stories will help managers to see that telework is a viable way to harness the skills and capabilities their organisation needs, and to retain their staff.
Blount says that to ensure the success of teleworking, HR professionals must first consider the business case for the proposed arrangement, including the suitability of the role and the individual.
“You have to think about job design – how do I design this job so the employee can work flexibly?”
HR professionals also have to have an understanding of whether the individual is suited to telework, and have processes for managers to follow when the arrangements aren’t working out, she says.
Some of the most common objections to telework, for example, “If I can’t see you, I don’t know what you’re doing”, can be debunked, Mount adds.
“I could be here today, present at work, but I could just sit here all day, looking at social media and the newspapers – I might not do anything at all,” she says.
New options on the horizon
Another issue that often arises in relation to telework or “anywhere working” is the notion that a worker either works from home or the central office – which doesn’t suit everybody – but employers’ options are growing, Blount says.
Smart hubs – that is, centrally-located offices that cater for very small businesses and remote workers who can’t or don’t want to work from home – are already up and running in Melbourne and Sydney.
These include “break-out centres” where employees can hold meetings and interact, kitchens and workspaces, and increasingly, short courses and conferences.
Meanwhile, plans for “smart work centres” – which will be larger, located in more urban areas, and geared towards organisations as opposed to individuals – are also underway.
They’ll cater for multiple organisations that want to give employees a secure place to work remotely, including government agencies and banks.
“A smart work centre is somewhere people can go that’s near their local area – so they don’t have to do a big commute – but they have access to all the technology they need in a secure environment. They also have access to the other things that they need – childcare, dry-cleaning, cafes – those sorts of services,” she says. A number of centres have already been established overseas, and are proving successful.
The work centres will be especially attractive to workers who endure long commutes on a daily basis. The NSW Central Coast, for example, currently has about 40,000 residents commuting to Sydney and Newcastle every day.
But their employers will benefit too, Blount says.
“If you’ve got employees that are commuting a long way and they can work one or two days a week from [closer to] home, automatically those employees are going to feel less stressed.”
The work centres will also mean that remote workers can still work collaboratively.
“If you need to have meetings with colleagues, or interact with other people, and it’s easier for them to get to a smart work centre, then it’s good to have that option.”
Don’t assume fewer distractions means improved productivity
One of the most common employer benefits cited for teleworking arrangements is increased productivity due to fewer “distractions”, but the notion shouldn’t be accepted at face value, Blount says.
“You have to be careful saying that,” she warns.
“It’s one thing to talk about individual productivity, but you also have to think about team productivity and organisational productivity.
“If I was working from home today I might feel a lot more productive, because I’m ticking things off my to-do list,” she explains.
If a student or colleague were to knock on her office door, however, she wouldn’t be there to answer.
In one of her research interviews, Blount asked some workers how they contacted one of their colleagues when she was working from home. “Oh no,” they said, “we don’t want to disturb her – we wait until she comes back the next day”.
They failed to recognise that she was supposed to be available, and that interrupting her for work reasons was just as valid when she was working from a different location, she says.
Blount is presenting the findings of her research at the Digital Productivity in the Workplace of the Future Conference conference in Sydney next week.
mums@work | 25.6.13