From Teleworking to E-Work
The following was an invited contribution to The West Berkshire Labour Conference, which was held in July 2000 by Thames Valley Enterprise (the predecessor of the Business Link business development agency).
Over the last few years improvements in portable computers and mobile communications (boosted by services from locally based Vodafone) has seen a growth in the use of virtual working and e-working (electronic working). Much of this has happened in an ad-hoc way as managers and professionals simply adapt to working in a location independent manner - in hotels, airport lounges, at home and on the move. This e-conference is an example of virtual working, where previously there would have been a real conference. In other words, business activities that once would have been specially earmarked as telework are now becoming part and parcel of everyday work - but not fast enough.
The Aspiration Gap
Various surveys show that about 5 per cent of UK workers are classified as teleworkers i.e. they spend significant time working away from offices using telecommunications. Yet the most remarkable finding is that some two thirds of employees would like to telework if their bosses would let them. The challenge, as always, is one of management. Managers must learn to manage at a distance. They must plan and develop work methods that allow - even encourage - employees to work in the most effective settings, which may be at home or in a shared satellite office away from areas of high rents and labour shortages, like West Berkshire. They must learn how to gauge employee's performance by outputs not by inputs (i.e. time spent sitting in the office). None of this is new. There is now over a decade's worth of proven cases where organizations, such as Siemens, Sedgwick, Oxfordshire County Council, have gained significant benefits from telework, and many practical guidelines (see Resources at end).
Formal Telework Programmes
Companies that have fully achieved significant benefits have done so through a formal telework programme. While ad-hoc or informal teleworking will have some benefits (mostly for the employee!), only a systematic approach will gain the organization-wide benefits that are achievable. Simply because someone can use a mobile telephone and portable computer does not mean a) that they are effective as they could be; and b) that the organization's work system as whole is optimized. A typical formal programme has the following elements:
- A focused programme team with representatives from different parts of the business and specialists in the disciplines needed - technology, change management, work design etc.
- Work analysis and space audit - identification of patterns of work and business processes, with focus on their location dependence
- Introduction of pilot projects, being careful to extract the learning for full roll-out
- Awareness and training sessions, including management training
- Roll-out company-wide with changes to working patterns, employee induction, changes of employee contract and allowances
- Resources and guidance on best practices for work design, space layout, technology infrastructure and support, working tools, human resource practices, legal, health and safety etc.
As many team leaders have told me: "it's not rocket science; it's common sense, but not common practice". Many of the objections raised against telework, such as social isolation, are myth, more than substance. For every objection, a simple solution, satisfactory to all concerned can usually be found. What must be realized is that telework should be voluntary (not forced on employees), and that it does not suit everyone (it depends on personality, domestic circumstances and lifestyle).
The Evolution of E-work
E-commerce has been a hot management topic for the last 2-3 years. But to put it in perspective, less that 2 per cent of sales are currently transacted by ecommerce (it's much more in certain business-to-business areas such as computer hardware and software), and even with its heady growth most analysts predict it will be less than 20 per cent by 2005. Yet, e-work (telework, virtual working and other variants) is more established, yet to many management teams, more invisible. It could be the answer to many organizational problems, not just skill-related, but customer-related and productivity ones as well. For example, there is growing use of globally dispersed virtual teams. Companies need project teams close to developers, close to suppliers and close to their customers - all at once. They can't do this, so individuals work where it is most convenient, and the teams come together in virtual meetings - like this conference! In my own work, 99 per cent of my contacts - suppliers, customers, business partners are from outside of the West Berks area. I've even subcontracted design work to Finland, since I got a better service than locally (where people were too busy and could not email proofs). It really is a matter of mind-set - thinking of the world, not West Berks, as your locality for customers, suppliers and resources (including employees). Almost every day, I get offers of help for web design India, Ukraine, Russia, Mexico and other countries with skilled employees and the desire to work.
More cost-effective tools are making working both practical and viable e.g. the use of intranets and extranets to connect work-teams with clients; videoconferencing for dispersed team meetings, drop-in centers and hot desking for peripatetic employees.
After five successful years of European Telework Week (ETW), where in early November events and real examples of telework are show-cased across Europe and the world (Canada had its first telework day in November 1998 to coincide with ETW), the European Commission has this year evolved it into e-Work Week. Part of the drive is the relatively low level of participation in the formal labour market in Europe (60 per cent, compared with 70 per cent in Japan and 75 per cent in the USA). The March summit meeting of Heads of State in Lisbon addressed this disparity, and want to increase participation rate among the people of working age, not in formal employment, especially women (a theme picked up in another agenda item at this labour conference - Engage the Economically Inactive). Getting people into the workforce through e-work is one way of doing this. The press release for e-Week comments:
"The creation of new e-work opportunities will require greater investment in "e-work" systems, particularly by small businesses in Europe. The stimulation of this investment is of common interest to governments and the developers and suppliers of "e-work" technologies. A partnership in stimulating such investment, and in the re-organisation of working practices, is the basis for the e-Work Week concept in 2000."
E-Work Week 2000 takes place from 30th October - 6th November. There are e-Work Awards for those demonstrating good e-work practice or providing innovative solutions. By approaching the labour market innovatively through e-work, West Berkshire organizations (both public and private) have an opportunity to show the rest of Europe how to do it effectively and sustain economic prosperity. I'm sure we can rise to the challenge and bring home one of these awards.
The Teleworking Handbook, Alan Denbigh and Imogen Bertin, published by TCA, The Telework, Telecottage and Telecentre Association (1999). Now in its 2nd edition (and with several European editions that are country specific and in the local language), this handbook is probably the best 'nuts and bolts' of how to do it properly from both employer's and employee's perspectives. £19.95 plus £2 P&P from TCA, FREEPOST CV2312, WREN, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, CV8 2RR or online at http://www.tca.org.uk
Flexible Work¸ Edna Murphy, Director Books, Institute of Directors (1996). Covers a wider range of flexible work practices, including flexi-time, flexible contracts, flexible organizations, from an overall company perspective.
European Telework Online http://www.eto.org.uk - Europe's leading web site on telework, complete with resources database and calendar of events.
E-week (formerly European Telework Week) - http://www.eto.org.uk - Details of events, award scheme, sponsorship opportunities for this annual programme that attracts over 100,000 participants.
Last updated: 24th March 2011