Teleworking Part I: Setting staff free

7 Sep 2004

Teleworking, e-working, flexible working – whatever you call it, the concept of using technology to enable you to work at a remote location from your office is nothing new. Seven or eight years ago, teleworking in Ireland was still very much confined to a select few, such as experienced book editors or translators, whose skills were in such demand that employers were willing to engage their services no matter where they were located. The nature of the work they were doing meant that a fax machine and PC with narrowband modem were more than enough technology to support them.

In the intervening years we’ve had studies, conferences and government initiatives focusing on e-working. While there was a lot of hot air produced and trees pulped in the name of teleworking, the practice has only really taken off in the past year. The simple reason for this is the current widespread availability of cheap broadband.

“Teleworking has been around for years but [was previously available] on low-speed connections where you were clocking up the costs by the minute,” says Peter Evans, product director with Esat BT. “The applications you had in the office weren’t available to you and it was expensive. Broadband has changed all that. It’s by no means ubiquitous but 50pc of lines in the country are broadband enabled – mostly in the major towns and cities, with an additional five or six towns being added each month,” he points out.

Wireless technologies are also playing their part and providing the link between simply working from home and working from a variety of flexible locations.

“With GPRS and wireless local area networks (WLANs) the technologies are absolutely there to support remote working,” says Orlagh Nevin, head of business services with O2. “We think it’s very important that customers have a choice of services and payment methods.”

It is relatively cheap to equip staff with a laptop that supports WLAN, GPRS and a standard Ethernet connection, which means they can avail of seamless network connectivity. In the office they can connect to the network via wireless or wired Ethernet, while at home the same Ethernet card can connect them to broadband. When travelling they will have network access via Wi-Fi in hotels and airports – particularly if their trip takes them out of Ireland.

Nevin believes the move to flexible working is being driven by a fear of losing a step on competitors. “People want flexibility and so they need to be able to communicate, wherever they are,” she says. “You can’t say to someone anymore: ‘I’ll do that for you when I get back to the office’. You can gain competitive advantage by using the technology to make your processes and operations quicker and faster,” she maintains.

While a request to work from home would once have elicited knowing smiles from colleagues, the benefits for both employer and employee of teleworking have been well documented. Employees enjoy a better work-life balance; they are more productive because they are not distracted by the regular interruptions of the office and they are happier because they do not have to struggle through traffic to work every morning.

A study last year of 60 workers (in Eircom, the Eastern Health Shared Services and the Department of Finance who availed of e-working) found that 90pc of participants suffered less stress as a result. Not surprisingly, teleworking freed up more of their time, according to 87pc of the 60 workers surveyed. Half spent the free time with their family; a quarter spent it on a hobby or leisure activity and 12pc used it for community activities.

So much for employee benefits – what’s in it for the bosses? Well, a happy workforce is a productive workforce – all the research into the effects of teleworking has found that productivity generally increases. There are also gains to be made by requiring less property to house staff – a small number of hotdesks can be shared between a large number of teleworkers.

John Sharpe, a director of Avaya Ireland, believes that for teleworking to be successful in an organisation there has to be an environment of trust between employees and management and a clear framework for what’s expected on both sides.

“If you give an employee choice it empowers them,” says Sharpe. “It’s the same as with a child – when you show them trust, they will respond.”

Anyone who has been through a successful introduction of flexible working in an organisation will tell you it’s as much about human resource (HR) issues as technology ones. “When we are selling our teleworking solutions our customer is the HR director, not the IT director,” says Evans.

Sharpe suggests a good starting point for developing a company teleworking policy is to adopt the UK Government’s guidelines for flexible working according to the needs of your own organisation.

Avaya doesn’t just provide the tools to support teleworking – it has enthusiastically embraced the concept itself. According to Sharpe, the company has saved US$750k a year on telecom costs by providing internet virtual private network access to its back office systems for home working and travelling employees.

By John Collins

Next time: The technologies that support flexible working