Balancing life and work

Volume 8 Number 12 December 10 2012 - January 14 2013

Forget the commute. Avoid the filthy office kitchen. And never again listen to that colleague with the annoying laugh. New technology and some fresh thinking means the 21st century Australian breadwinner will spend an increasing amount of time working from home.  By Ryan Sheales andAnnie Rahilly.

The Federal Government estimates those of us residing in big cities spend at least 50 minutes each day getting to and from work.

“That’s lost time with family and friends,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard told last month’s Telework Congress at the University of Melbourne. “Teleworking gives us some options. It means that people can do some or all of their work from home.”

To drive her point home, the Prime Minister made her remarks 472kms away in Canberra.

In an increasingly fluid and mobile world, our offices can be anywhere and our productivity can be shaped by our work environments.

Currently, more than 43 million Americans work from home or someplace other than their offices. But the practice has not yet been fully realised or embraced in Australia. 

One major concern about teleworking from a management perspective is productivity. How can we manage a new generation of employees working from anywhere? Do we have the right tools, appropriate management style, control structures and mechanisms, backed by supportive HR policies and procedures in place to have productive outcomes from our distributed workers? The more profound question is how can we measure productivity?

In short: how can employer X know that employee Y is actually finishing that sales report and hasn’t instead skipped off to the beach?

But research conducted by the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband Enabled Society (IBES) has found working away from the office can actually increase productivity and make employees feel happier.

The study was based on the experiences of 28 teleworkers – 13 managers and 15 general staff members – across the education, IT, government and banking sectors.

Participants were asked to log their experiences on two teleworking and two non-teleworking days. The aim was to get a snapshot of workers’ self-perceived productivity and wellbeing over these four days, while a management perspective on team productivity was acquired at the end of the data collection period.  

The participants were also interviewed about how productive and happy they felt while working away from the office. 

Employees across all organisations reported higher levels of productivity and wellbeing when teleworking.  Managers from organisations where telework was already embraced (including by senior staff) also extolled the positive benefits of the practice.  

Lead researcher Dr Rachelle Bosua, from the Department of Computing and Information Systems, says the most surprising aspect of the findings was the number of employees reporting that a general sense of wellbeing resulting from teleworking increased their productivity.

Working in an environment away from daily work interruptions and disruptions, the absence of long daily commutes and the ability to balance home and family life were all important elements that fostered a sense of greater wellbeing.

“I am much better working from home,” wrote one local government employee who took part in the study. “I couldn’t do what I do at work. I work in an open plan office and I work much better in a secluded environment. I can concentrate deeply here [from home when teleworking]; I can’t do that at work.”

This corporate employee agreed: “What I’ve found with telework is that it gives you space in a different environment, whether it be at home, whether it be the coffee shop, or just in the office wherever you can just find some space to make sure you have a plan of attack for the day, week, month, year and make sure you’re tracking to it.

“Personally I think I am a lot more productive when I telework,” wrote a manager working in the telecommunications field.

Dr Rachelle Bosua says managers need a different approach and style to effectively manage teleworkers.  

“They need to assign smaller tasks with tighter deadlines and clearly articulated outcomes and arrange more frequent follow-ups through online or virtual meetings,” she says.

One bank manager who took part in the teleworking trial says this was a difficult transition.

“I found it difficult to find out what they [teleworkers] were doing – and it all came down to trust. Could we trust them to be productive and do the work without them being in the office?

“It also came down to a point of getting to know the team and we soon got to know who could be trusted and who couldn’t. The ones we suspected weren’t doing the right thing, we monitored closely.”

The mere fact that a boss is willing to trust a subordinate to work autonomously instils a sense of goodwill, according to Dr Bosua.

“We found that trust from a management and worker perspective is important to foster a productive work environment.”

This worker agrees: “When you start the job you are given the trust, and it’s yours to lose if you don’t do the right thing. And then you are judged by results, so if I deliver the results then I have the trust of my managers.”

Managers also need to ensure workers can easily and seamlessly access high-level IT support while working remotely. This means organisations must invest in the IT big picture; equipment, platforms and applications.

This generally means audio and video-conferencing, on-line presence tools such as Skype, instant messaging programs, high calibre mobile devices and ensuring staff have access to high-speed internet.

The big question is whether we have the right tools, appropriate management style, control structures and mechanisms, backed by supportive HR policies and procedures in place to have productive outcomes from our distributed workers. 

The Federal Government seems intent on leading the way.

On the day of the Telework Congress – which was held at the beginning of National Telework Week – Ms Gillard indicated that she wanted 12 per cent of Australian public servants to be regularly teleworking within 10 years.

To this end, several government departments and public agencies have been instructed to conduct a series of telework trials starting in the first half of 2014.

Allowing employees to work from home or other locations promises clear economic benefits also.

“A Deloitte Economics study indicates that 25,000 new jobs could be created and annual GDP could be increased by $3.2 billion by the time the NBN is finished in 2021,” Ms Gillard says.

The study found that more than two thirds of Australians unable to commit to paid employment because of disability or because they work as carers indicate they would accept telework. The vast majority of those approaching retirement age or living in regional and remote Australia who are not already in the labour force have also indicated they would be willing to embrace teleworking.