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Teleworking 2

The following article was published in the Singapore Straits Times.

It was the Industrial Revolution that saw the formation of big companies needing to employ large numbers of staff on gigantic machines. Previously people had worked from home in cottage industries and shop-houses. Now they had to relocate to the cities and commute to work in the vast factories and then commute back home for dinner. They all had to arrive at the same time each morning and leave at the same time each evening.

Good management practice then meant ensuring that all staff were at their stations in the right place at the right time and supervisors (literally 'overseers') kept lateness charts and attendance records and checked that all the operators were working in exactly the prescribed way. Otherwise production could not meet quantity and quality targets.

But now we are well and truly in the Information Age where staff work more independently on small computers in individual cubicles. Industrial Management may not be such an appropriate practice as before.

An increasing number of organisations are experimenting with new ways of working and many have adopted some form of Teleworking. Staff might work from home or a satellite office and only come into the company office for, perhaps, one or two days a week or for the occasional meeting. Staff can work whichever flexible hours suit their life style and their other responsibilities and can choose not to live so close to their company office as before. They might even rent a room somewhere in their local community from which to work and might use local office services suppliers.

Different companies in different countries have different motives for encouraging Teleworking and most of these reasons are very compelling: attracting and retaining staff; reducing overheads; enabling people with caring responsibilities to join or remain in the workforce; reducing traffic pollution and congestion and improving staff's quality of life.

In countries where a change in demographics means an ageing population and fewer young people entering the workforce, Teleworking allows older staff to adjust their working life to their own style rather than have to fit in with the norms of their employer. They agree their own contract with their employer.

Such practices can improve productivity, reduce retrenchments, lower costs, reduce travel tiredness and reduce the need for foreign workers. And staff who are not feeling too well are less likely to take sick leave.

But successful Teleworking is not just about fixing up someone with a PC at home and 'phoning them once a day. The technological aspects of data transmission, security and maintenance are easy.

The legal considerations of insurance and occupational health and safety are not too difficult, either. Working out the finances of who will pay for the PUB and telecom charges and the increased insurances is not particularly hard. Some companies simply pay a flat monthly allowance to cover all such expenses. Even issues of overtime pay and Medical Certificates can be sorted out.

What has caused the problems and, in some cases, the abandonment of Teleworking is not the 'tangible' side but a failure to address the 'intangible' side of the changes in working practice.

There must be an analysis of those jobs most appropriate to Teleworking. There must be an identification of those staff best suited and of which of the many different forms of Teleworking will be right for them. And there must be an assessment of which managers are best able to manage from a distance and how they will do it. There are psychometric instruments available that help employees and managers considering Teleworking to understand their preferred ways of working. Between themselves they agree upon reporting methods, criteria, times, frequencies and even locations which suit their particular working patterns and styles.

Some staff are unable to Telework because of the nature of their job or because of their domestic circumstances and yet they might be called upon to help if the Teleworker is not available. These staff must be catered for without them feeling that they are being disadvantaged or even exploited.

Team spirit and loyalty issues among both Teleworking and non-Teleworking staff must be reviewed and new methods possibly devised.

Some managers might need to be trained in how to agree measurable output of performance and time, rather than relying upon input management of assessing staff by the numbers of hours they are at their desks. Of course, it is likely that managers, too, might be Teleworking and so new working practices might need to be set up with their staff as they may not be so easy to contact as before.

Training will probably need to be provided to the Teleworker in the disciplines of working from home and of convincing the family and the neighbours that they are not available to do chores or collect the children from school.

Teleworking staff must still recognise that they are part of the organisation even when they find that their company office space has been sold. Some companies encourage staff to keep some personal belongings in the company office so that they can personalise their work space when they are hot desking.

New methods of communications need to be devised so that everyone is still kept informed of all relevant information. Some staff and managers might need training in how to write e-mails (properly!) and how to use teleconferencing or videoconferencing to achieve both task and socio-emotional objectives.

And staff will need to be kept involved with all the office gossip and tittle-tattle. More importantly for some staff, they will want to know when there are impending career opportunities. Some companies have a bulletin board so that those interested know what's going on.

There are so many benefits of some form of Teleworking for everyone and good financial, productivity and social cases can easily be made. It would be a pity if the advantages were to be lost through a lack of planning on the 'soft' side.

Tim Russell is an international management and training consultant operating in Singapore and Teleworking between offices in London and Australia . He has recently been researching the social and psychological aspects of Teleworking for the European Union.

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