While the number of people availing of teleworking and other forms of flexible working arrangements in Ireland has mushroomed in the past year, primarily due to the increased availability of broadband and other access technologies such as Wi-Fi, we still lag behind the UK and the US in adopting the benefits of regularly working outside the office.
The most recent figures available are from the Central Statistics Office’s Quarterly National Household Survey, published in February, which found that some 3.5pc of the workforce (59,200 people) are engaged in some form of teleworking. Interestingly, the breakdown of the kind of people involved in teleworking in Ireland show that it is developing in the same way as it has done in other and more advanced geographies — it is mostly practised here by male managers and professionals who are city based.
So why has there been a relatively low uptake when the Republic is supposed to be a hotbed of all things technology-related? The technical infrastructure is clearly in place for large parts of the population but people issues have still to be addressed.
A 2003 study of teleworking in Eircom, Eastern Health Shared Services and the Department of Finance found that before the practice was introduced managers expressed concern about the day-to-day management of their e-working staff, but that these concerns were never realised.
Over the nine-month period of the study, work objectives were met, delivery of results remained constant and work standards were maintained. An impressive 83pc of managers said that managing e-workers to achieve results was the same as managing their office-bound colleagues. The study found that the key to successful e-working was training all parties involved.
“There’s a massive human resources [HR] angle to this — it’s not just about technology or giving everyone a laptop and a mobile phone,” says Peter Evans, product director with Esat BT. “HR has to drive it. There’s got to be objective setting for the employees with clear roles defined. Managers can be very nervous about this because they feel if someone is out of sight they are not working. That’s why you need to define clear and measurable deliverables for teleworkers. Managers have to start thinking it doesn’t matter how or where staff do the work as long as it gets done. People can be in the office from nine to five but they can also be doing nothing.”
Evans also notes that US multinationals seem to be much more comfortable with e-working than their Irish counterparts. Last year Microsoft announced that it was giving 500 of its staff DSL connections in their homes from Esat BT to allow them to telework. This figure will increase to 1,200 staff members when more telephone exchanges are enabled for broadband.
“Managers need to move from the mentality that if they can’t see their staff then they are not working,” says John Sharpe, a director with Avaya Ireland. “That’s a very Eighties mentality and that’s what’s killing teleworking in Ireland.”
He points to the situation in the UK where flexible working legislation which came into force in April 2003 means employees have the legal right to request flexible working arrangements, providing they have children under the age of six or children with disabilities under 18.
“With the traffic problems and the road infrastructure in this country, the sooner flexible working as a regulatory government initiative is forced on us, or at least promoted actively, the better,” says Sharpe.
While the technology required for teleworking is pretty well established and available at little or no additional cost than providing desk-based facilities, security continues to be a concern. Remote workers are able to log on to company systems, obviously opening up another potential route of attack for malicious hackers. Laptops are being used remotely and then being plugged into the company network behind the firewall, which can potentially introduce viruses and worms.
At the very least all remote PCs need to be equipped with a firewall and anti-virus software which have to be kept up to date. Network equipment vendors such as Cisco, Avaya and Nortel Networks are ensuring that security is built into the products they provide to support e-working and remote access.
“We are addressing these problems with our defence strategy which means there is security at every point on the network,” says Karl McDermott, system engineering manager with Cisco Systems and himself a regular teleworker. “Our network admission controller checks the version of the anti-virus software and ensures the intrusion protection is up-to-date each time you log on. If it isn’t, you won’t be allowed onto the network and will be directed to a quarantined virtual local area network so that you can access the updates you need. It’s a bit like making sure everyone showers before they get into a swimming pool.”
As a teleworker himself McDermott feels the technology is in place in most of Ireland to support teleworking but that attitudes need to change.
“The company gets a lot more out of me when I am working from home — I’m a lot more diligent,” says McDermott. “For things such as report writing where you need to be able to concentrate without interruptions it’s great. But it’s also important to go into the office and have personal interaction with your colleagues. You definitely need a balance of the two,” he stresses.
By John Collins