Teleworking can bring many benefits to an economy but Ireland has still to reap those benefits according to Jill Finger Gibson, research manager, European Telecoms Services at IDC. A mere 2pc of the Irish workforce telecommutes, according to Finger Gibson, who was in Dublin at the invitation of Eircom and spoke at a teleworking seminar organised by the company.
While this is not too bad compared to an average 3pc across western Europe, it is only one third the proportion of the US telecommuting population and a quarter of that of the Netherlands. Telecommuting is defined as working at home during normal business hours for three days a week or more.
“For a modern services-based economy, teleworking is important,” says Finger Gibson. “Especially within the EU where it does seem there is a lot of emphasis on work/life balance and how that can actually reduce health costs because it reduces stress levels. [Proponents of teleworking] also hope that it will reduce pollution levels because people will not be spending so much time in their cars.”
She refers to a study by the RAC Foundation and Telework Association in the UK, which stated that if each employee could work from home just one day per week, traffic could be cut by as much as 20pc, the equivalent of the school run.
She also points to the fact that the greater flexibility teleworking brings will enable companies to attract and retain the highly-skilled workers they need. Companies can also save on the overhead costs of keeping people in the office and on the time wasted fighting traffic.
So what’s holding up teleworking? One of the key factors she identifies is the lack of employee trust or an unwillingness to change. “There has to be buy-in by management,” she says. It is not sufficient for employees to welcome the concept. The availability of broadband can also be an issue.
“Teleworking can be done without access to broadband telecommunications. It’s been going on in the US since the early Eighties,” she points out. “But you are limited to what you can do if you only have a narrowband connection. Sure, you can get your email and do some conferencing, but that’s about it. I think increasing communications between organisations is using higher bandwidth type applications. For instance, IDC had a conference scheduled for Singapore and Hong Kong a few weeks ago, but because of the SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] scare, they had to cancel it. They did run the conference as a Webcast, but it could have had greater participation if more people had access to broadband telecommunications.
“In terms of availability, Ireland is catching up with other countries, but in terms of rollout and connection of new subscribers, it’s slower. That’s mainly because it was launched later and is still relatively expensive. But that’s not to say Ireland can’t catch up. The fact that it has a small population and relatively small distances to cover bodes well for the country,” she says.
Overall, Finger Gibson ranks us as being well prepared for teleworking. “Everything is there. At a national level the Government has bought into it and that’s really important. The stage is set. It’s just less part of the accepted culture, but there’s no reason to suppose that won’t change.”
However, for things to change, she says, employers need clear economic incentives. She points to the Netherlands, where 8pc of the working population teleworks. There, companies get a tax break every three years to pay employees for home office equipment. She also points to Belgium which has had a law on home working in place since 1997 and to Denmark, where the Government subsidises employee purchase of a PC and a broadband connection by allowing the amount to be deducted from the employee’s salary before tax. As a result, she says, 40,000 to 50,000 Danes have upgraded their home Internet access to broadband.
By David Stewart
Pictured, Cathal Magee, managing director of eircom retail and Jill Finger Gibson, research manager, European Telecommunications Services, IDC