The daily grind
Fri 3 Sep 2010 by Nigel Pinkerton.

At the turn of the century, telecommuting was a big buzzword in IT and management circles.     Many white-collar workers wondered if the days of commuting into the office five days a week were numbered.   But while communication and remote access technology has matured considerably over the last decade, most of us seem unwilling or unable to make the switch and start predominately working from home.

Just under 9% of people reported that they worked at home on the day of the 2006 census.   However, this statistic captures home business owners and many farmers so it is hard to get a picture of the true scale of telecommuting in New Zealand.   Nonetheless, it is safe to say that telecommuting was not a wide-spread practice in 2006.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many organisations give their workers the option of working from home under certain conditions.   Some people work from home on a regular basis, perhaps one day a week.   Others have the option of working at home when they are mildly ill or have family commitments.   In these situations, telecommuting is seen as complementary to coming into the office, not a complete replacement.   Few office workers have been able to completely ditch the daily commute.

So why are many of us still tied to our desks?   For the desk jockey, the traditional office gives us the ability to have spontaneous and informal conversations about our work, or sit around a table and conduct meeting.   But video conferencing and real-time chat are both mature technologies which can be a pretty good substitute for face to face collaboration.

Perhaps it is the social aspect of the traditional work environment that some of us are reluctant to let go of.   Telecommuting could mean an increased sense of isolation for the individual.   But attitudes have a habit of changing over time, with many young people already content to replace the traditional "catch up" at the coffee shop with a chat session on Facebook.  Most human beings crave social interaction, but the office may not be the place we look for it in the future.

Although there are draw-backs to telecommuting, there are also huge potential benefits.   Suburban dwellers in the main cities could gain an extra hour or more a day through ditching the commute, time which could be split between work and leisure.   Workers may be able to make better use of their breaks by mowing their lawns, pursuing a hobby, or perhaps taking a nap.

From a business point of view telecommuting has huge cost-saving potential.   Office space in Auckland can rent for more than $600/m2 annually.   Many organisations would be reluctant to completely do away with their offices, but they could still significantly down size them.   A few companies have done this already but they remain the exception.

Businesses should also consider the potential for productivity gains.   This objective may require a change in management style for some firms, so that the focus is on work outcomes rather than intensive monitoring of employees.   In today’s dynamic labour market, many employers are looking for ways to get more out of their workers whilst building their reputation as an employer people want to work for.

Flexible working hours is a common concession in modern white-collar employment contracts, with employees having the freedom to vary their working hours to meet targets.   But managing employees who spend a significant amount of time working from home requires a further shift in thinking and management style.

If the benefits of telecommuting outweigh the costs, wouldn’t we all be telecommuting full-time already?   Not necessarily.     There may be a coordination problem, meaning all parties must work together to realise the mutual gains.   Sometimes in economics, the best solution to problem is only found when all parties cooperate.   In the case of telecommuting, early adopters may face disadvantages that wouldn’t exist (or would at least be lessened) if the practice was more wide-spread.

The costs of setting up a single individual in an organisation work from home may be high relative to the benefits.   This individual may also feel out of touch with the rest of the office.   Research has suggested they tend to miss out on promotions to colleagues who their manager has more face-to-face contact with.   But if their organisation embraces telecommuting as the norm and large numbers of employees participate, then everyone is on level playing field.

Telecommuting is still the exception rather than the rule in New Zealand and it may not be right for every organisation.   Economies of scale and technological limitations mean most factory and industrial workers will betide to their daily commute for the foreseeable future.   But as communications technology continues to evolve, the potential for productivity gains and the prospect of ditching the daily commute will see more employers and office workers embracing telecommuting.

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