Teleworking 'boosts productivity by 25% to 30%'

'Hot desking' at Auckland offices of Vodafone, which encourages teleworking

Organisations can boost staff productivity by 25% to 30% if they adopt flexible teleworking, business leaders have been told.

But the inaugural Telework Work Week “Smarter Business” lunch guests in Auckland also heard of the HR and legal challenges for companies considering implement it.

New Zealand has just finished its first Teleworking Week, joining Australia in championing the claimed benefits of working remotely away from the office.

Across the Tasman this week Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a target of having 12% of the public sector teleworking by 2020.

No New Zealand targets have been set, but employment law is set to change in coming months, giving all workers the right to work flexibly. At present, only those with dependents and who have worked with an organisation for six months can ask for this right.

Geoff Lawrie, New Zealand country manager for IT networking company Cisco, says new technologies like smartphones, laptops, video conferencing and faster broadband is bringing “transformational change”.

“For the first time in history, you can get your work done from anywhere at anytime,” he says.

The emergence of cloud computing, which allows data to be transferred and the computing workload to be handled by experts, also means companies are not location dependent.

“They, too, can also access their data from anywhere,” he says.

There will be 20-25 billion computing devices by 2025 connected to the internet, mainly driven by people wanting to connect everything they own.

Happy with smaller salary

Mr Lawrie says Cisco allows its staff to telework and has found two-thirds of employees want it, and that two-thirds would work for a smaller salary if they were able to work remotely.

Employees gained from having a more enjoyable work-life balance and better motivation. Employers gained from having better motivated staff, access to a greater number of potential employees and better productivity.

“Anecdotally, when we save time from commuting, employees give at least half back to the company. This amounts to 2-3 hours a day, a 25% to 30% productivity increase.

"I know of no other thing that could give a productivity return of 25% to 30%. This is why it needs to be on everyone’s agenda,” he says.

Vodafone New Zealand HR director Antony Welton says teleworking is about flexibility.

He has recently transferred from Vodafone in London, where many firms force workers to telework a couple of days a week as office rents are too expensive and commuting takes too long.

He says Vodafone achieved many savings at its Venue headquarters when it opened eight years ago. It does not have a desk for everyone, which means the cost of providing services for each worker is just $7000 a year as opposed to the New Zealand average of $12,500.

Don't have their own desks

Instead, Vodafone promotes teleworking, allowing staff work from home, and not having their own desk means they work in a teleworking style environment when on-site.

Managers need to learn to trust their staff and judge output differently. They also need to provide the tools like smartphones, secure laptops and networks.

“We have leaders who believe in mobility and the benefits of mobility,” he says.

Vodafone found different people and different roles had different work needs, and that teleworking worked for some and not others. But giving staff a choice boosts motivation.

Some 77% of Vodafone employees say such flexibility makes a role more attractive and teleworking helps organisations retain their staff, especially women taking maternity leave.

“Teleworking is about unlocking leadership – giving managers the skills to manage in a different environment,” he says.

Michael O’Brien, senior law associate for Kensington Swan, says businesses are sceptical, but they need to "dip their toes" into teleworking, especially with the government about to extend the legal right to flexible working.

“The home is going to become a workplace. Employer obligations will extend to that. There will need to be an initial check of the workplace and monitoring on an annual basis and making sure the employee is responsible.

“There are issues of how confidential information is kept secure and what is the employee’s responsibility. What are the expectations of the worker? Are they caring for dependents or do they need to be free and focused?” 

Companies need to “lay the proper foundations” to control expectations, have ability to monitor staff and review health and safety obligations, Mr O’Brien says.

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2 Comments & Questions

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One has to be very careful about the gains from 'teleworking'. The firm may save costs, but what about the employee, who picks up having to pay for electricity/gas not consumed when working in the office, a bigger house/apartment with a separate workspace to ensure that work and home life can be kept separate, the extra trips out to pick up all the things that you used to get on the eay to and from work, having to make your own lunch (heaven forbid, because there isn't a canteen or a cafe in the basement etc.etc.

I 'telework' one day a week. Or rather, I work from home one day per week, which is the day that I turn off all 'tele' appliances in order to get some concentrated thinking/working done without constant interruptions. The managerial classes have always enjoyed this sort of 'privilege', and have been able to afford to subsidise the firm for the additional costs incurred (often because they own the firm anyway). But it is not at all clear that it generates genuine productivity improvements in the long run when workers realise how much extra it costs them personally, not to mention the social isolation that ensues.

Teleworking will only work for a small number of employment classes - the public sector is likely one of them. but it is by no means a universal solution to productivity problems.

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The productivity gains claimed seem to confirm that people in offices waste a huge amount of time chatting around the water cooler ...

Even more time than those "teleworking" spend on online shopping and nipping out for a bottle of milk for their coffee...

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