Teleworking: the future or the past?

29 October 2013

For as long as I can remember, pioneering companies such as IBM, Intel and Cisco have attributed their success – at least in part – to their decision to allow staff to work from home/a remote access device, or 'telework'.

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Fuelled by monumental improvements in connection speeds and remote-working devices, the number of so-called 'teleworkers' has grown exponentially since 2006/7. Indeed, a recent study by the Bureau of Labour Statistics in the US reports that some 24% of employed people are working from home at least some hours each week. Teleworking is also increasing in the UK. For some, teleworking is regarded as integral to business success and employee morale in the long-term future.

Why, then, has the recently appointed Yahoo chief executive Marissa Meyer banned her staff from teleworking, even though Yahoo was one of the pioneers of the practice? And why did Google's chief financial officer Patrick Pichette order that 'as few as possible' Google workers be permitted to telework?

So, what are the arguments for and against teleworking – and why have these two forward-thinking powerhouses shunned it in favour of the traditional 'office model', when equally successful counterparts like Deloitte and AT&T are using teleworking more than ever?


The case for teleworking 

From an employee's perspective, teleworking is fantastic. It is the ideal 'have your cake and eat it' scenario: working the hours you want to work, at the times you want to work them. Travel costs and 'dead' travel time are minimised, and you get to see your family more than would otherwise ever be the case.

Moreover, the employer is in a great position too! Their staff are no longer consigned to working a shady 9 to 5 day with all-too-often trips to the coffee machine and cafeteria. Running costs for businesses could be dramatically reduced, since a smaller workforce requires a smaller premises investment. To emphasise the point, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the $30 million spent to implement telework throughout the government over the past five years amounts to less than a third of the $100 million lost in productivity costs when federal offices in Washington must be shut down for a single day due to inclement weather. Further, lower energy emissions from smaller offices will lead to decreased carbon footprints, so teleworking is understandably popular with 'green' companies.

Perhaps the biggest benefit from an employer's perspective is the opportunity to retain skilled workers, whose individual circumstances (those with a young family, medical problems, etc.) may no longer lend themselves to working in an office environment.

On this evidence, teleworking can only be a good thing for all concerned… can't it?


The case against teleworking

So, what are the drawbacks to the situation described above? Won't employers be champing at the bit to transfer as many workers as possible from the office into their homes?

Well, the perceived employee benefit of increased working flexibility could be a fallacy. With no 'prescribed' working hours, employees could find themselves constantly at the beck and call of angry office-based superiors who have no concern for the hours that a teleworker may be working.

Being separated from office culture also has indirect consequences. An employee could become isolated from both career and social life. Opportunities open to office-based employees could be missed by their teleworking counterparts, and the dividing line between working life and social life could become blurred. Countless social studies have reinforced in our minds the benefits of a happy work/life balance – would this be possible under a system that blurs the distinction?

There is a perceived social stigma that teleworkers are apathetic and disorganised, a perception encapsulated by this typically controversial quote from Boris Johnson: 'We all know that it is basically sitting wondering whether to go down to the fridge to hack off that bit of cheese before checking your emails again."

Whilst this tongue-in-cheek snippet from the ever-quotable Mayor of London is certainly not reflective of the views of the informed minority, it does highlight the somewhat naïve view of the majority. What do the supporters of teleworking say in response? Intel's general manager of enterprise solutions Gordon Graylish dismisses this, stating that around 85 percent of Intel's staff work remotely. He counters:

"We expect people to get their jobs done, not that they need to be at a particular place, or do it at a particular time…But at the same time, do people work harder because they are being watched? I don't think so."


So, is teleworking a herald of the future, or a relic of the past?

Evidently, teleworking is a divisive business model - the rigid routine of an office is inhibiting for some, but for others it is the best way to boost their individual productivity. Perhaps the more introverted worker feels reassured by working in the comfort of one's own home, and is able to get his best work done without the added pressure of office politics. So, what is the future?

Conceivably, a technology-focused company could develop its workforce by freeing their creative minds through teleworking. The high percentage of IBM, Cisco and AT&T staff who telework could indicate that creative industries are more amenable to teleworking. But why are Google and Yahoo the anomalies?

The position of Google and Yahoo appears to be that an office worker can be better supervised than a home worker, or perhaps that working from the office as much as possible will maintain an employee awareness of the latest opportunities and developments within the company, as well as cutting a vivid dividing line between working life and social life.

In this author's humble opinion, teleworking is a good idea in principle. But would it work in the legal services industry where client-facing commercial advice is crucial? Well, the early signs are good. The ability to 'court' prospective clients whilst remotely accessing time-sensitive work, would be much harder without telework. Larger firms with global offices can liaise with each other more effectively, ensuring big legal projects are completed with efficiency. Teleworking could become vital to the legal services industry in the future as it becomes increasingly reliant on cost-saving measures to appease its discerning clientele.

Nevertheless, I disagree that teleworking should replace office-based working altogether. Rather, I envisage a scenario where the two peacefully co-exist to a much greater extent than they currently do. Perhaps a five-day working week could be eased by a Wednesday 'teleworking day'. That way, a company could boost creativity and morale, without losing productivity and employee engagement – and keep hold of its most skilled employees.

So, is my vision going to become reality… or will teleworking be consigned to history as an unsuccessful experiment?  Well, study results from the 2013 Regus Global Economic Indicator reported 48 percent of business managers worldwide work remotely for at least half their working week. Is this figure likely to be reflective of the entire working pyramid? It looks as though we will just have to wait and see!

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