Virtual reality workplaces, cheap video-conferencing, and an endless array of collaborative work tools make it easier than ever to remain an intrinsic part of your work team when working remotely.
But despite huge advances in technology, Dr Yvette Blount says many organisations still struggle with the same management barriers that have hampered 'anywhere working' for more than 40 years.
“Rather than seeing remote work as just another way of working, some managers see it as a privilege, while others manage by ‘presenteeism’ – judging workers by their visibility rather than their productivity,” says Blount.
Blount is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Economics at Macquarie University, and the Research Coordinator for the Australian Anywhere Working Research Network.
She is co-author of the book, Anywhere Working and the New Era of Telecommuting, published this year, which explores such topics as virtual offices, leadership challenges, digital inclusion, tele-health and professional isolation.
More productive off-site
While some managers baulk at leading off-site workers, research suggests many people working from home are more productive than their office-based peers.
“Knowledge workers tend to keep working outside business hours, check emails on their days off, work when sick and contribute significant amounts of unpaid time,” Blount says.
Some of Australia’s leading organisations - including ANZ, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Australian Stock Exchange and Telstra - have successfully introduced flexible work policies that give staff far more choice about where and how they work.
Dr Blount says that all these organisations have company-wide flexibility policies, which means individual managers have more difficulty rejecting employee requests for a flexible work arrangement.
Diverse and productive
The results can be astounding, she adds, leading to a happier, more diverse and productive workforce.
One of her research subjects, an employee who commuted daily to Sydney from her Blue Mountains home, had a complicated and stressful life situation to balance with her work commitments.
“She was up at 5am taking her two small children to the neighbours with packed breakfasts and lunches, and back by 4pm to pick them up from another neighbour for daily activities,” Blount says.
“I interviewed her before she started teleworking and six months after. She was a different person, the stress had gone. She was organised, structured and visited the office when needed.”
Pros and cons
Blount says that technology is the enabler, not the driver, of 'anywhere working'. Success relies on strong policies that support flexible work, and administrators who can effectively manage diverse and complex work arrangements.
In response, fans of ‘anywhere working’ say it gives better work-life balance, drops workplace costs for employers - and is becoming accepted as business as usual.
But opponents say it elicits social and professional isolation and reduces collaboration and innovation. They argue technology doesn’t replace person-to-person communication.
“The same issues were raised long before the iPhone or broadband or even widespread use of personal computers, since the 1970s,” says Blount.
Some work-from-home pioneers like Yahoo and IBM are now shifting to more office-based work. In March, IBM reduced its work-from-home options. In 2009 the tech giant had 40 per cent of employees working from home, saving an estimated $100 million in office space.
Telecommuting research began with a 1976 book published by former NASA engineer Jack Nilles, which advocated remote work as a solution to long commutes, traffic jams and housing density issues – and was partly a response to the 1973 OPEC oil crisis.
Blount says that today’s challenges include the need to manage a complex workforce where workers (from full-time employees through to freelancers) may be working from any location.
Her future research will also explore how technology such as AI could resolve some remote work limitations, such as telepresence robots.
Dr Blount is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Economics at Macquarie University.