Telecommuting: worth getting worked up about

"During the Olympics, the railways are advising Sydneysiders not to catch trains, while the road body is advising road commuters to avoid peak travelling times," says Alan Jones, product director of Yahoo Australia & NZ.

The company is launching a site to advise businesses and individuals about the various free internet tools available to telecommuters. According to Jones, the Yahoo Messenger tool, for example, enables workers to connect to colleagues instantly, while setting up a Yahoo Mail account not only provides a free email service, but also ensures access to office or ISP email accounts.

Meanwhile, address books, be they from Yahoo or other providers, enable users to save and manage contact details for business and personal associates, while clubs can be used to build online communities between work-from-home colleagues.

As Jones points out, however, there are many other reasons besides the Olympics that will drive businesses to start paying some serious attention to the benefits of telecommuting.

In addition to doing much to minimise pollution, telecommuting is great for parents who want to be at home when the kids get back from school, says Jones. It can also help extend maternity or paternity leave, and enable people to move to regional areas while still working for clients or companies in the city.

"Best of all," says Jones, "workers can access these tools from any computer that is connected to the net. So whether that's from home, a hotel, an interstate office or web cafe, they can communicate and get their work done efficiently."

The issue is close to home for Robert Olivier of the Sydney-based Olivier Recruitment Group, which is relocating some of its city staff to its Parramatta office for the duration of the Olympics.

Aidan Tudehope, chief operating officer of Macquarie Corporate Telecommunications, agrees that while more widespread take-up of work-from-home practices is particularly relevant in the lead-up to the Olympics, it's also becoming increasingly important in realising longer-term e-business plans.

The company has just launched its AccessConnect dialup network solution, connecting users to a central site that is more flexible and can save companies hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Tudehope.

"Australian businesses can now outsource the management of dialup networks without installing boxes on site, thus avoiding all the people, time, cost and management challenges that come with that," explains Tudehope. "In so doing, AccessConnect removes many of the barriers that have prevented more widespread up-take of work-from-home practices. With AccessConnect, corporates get economical, high-speed access, with the security of an outsourced, managed service."

Tudehope believes the launch spells good news for companies with in-house solutions that are experiencing technological administration headaches and ballooning costs caused by a growing workforce of road warriors and telecommuters.

The issue is close to home for Robert Olivier of the Sydney-based Olivier Recruitment Group, which is relocating some of its city staff to its Parramatta office for the duration of the Olympics.

"The Olympic Games could well be the catalyst for driving a change to telecommuting," says Olivier. "But there will only be a positive future for telecommuting once it's proven that it works and the trust is there.

"We've got a great case for it working," he says. "One of our staff has chronic fatigue syndrome, so we offered her a part-time job. She's moved out of Sydney now and mostly telecommutes."

While Olivier believes that the trend to telecommuting has been slow, due largely to resistance from employers, he believes that acute shortages in some areas are now forcing employers to do something about it. "Traditional management techniques can make it hard to manage down the line," he says, "and the practicality of the telecommuting option does depend on the nature of the job, the trust in the employee and the management required. It's also not the favoured option of many staff members.

"We tried to accommodate another staff member in the same way," he says, "but she finally decided against telecommuting because she thought it might not be right for our kind of business. A lot of people would also rather have the human contact of an office environment than work from a spare bedroom in an empty house. And, at home, the computer's always there. Some people could end up working longer hours."

Tim Nelson of online executive recruitment and career management firm Futurestep agrees that telecommuting could becoming entrapping, rather than empowering and liberating.

"The organisational culture and management attitude is therefore critical to ensuring the success of telecommuting," he says. "A recent California study found that 75 per cent of managers use their computers for work after hours. The problem is that many 'hard-driving' telecommuting professionals become 'addicted to being wired'.

"Already many knowledge workers," he adds, "are overworked, overtaxed and overconnected. It is our experience that even high achievers want to join organisations that respect leisure time and offer work-free times as a point of difference over competing employers."

For Nelson, while the benefits and flexibility of telecommuting are empowering, the accessibility of technology continues to blur the lines between home and office, and that is not necessarily a good thing.

Row Henson, vice president of global human resources strategy at e-business solutions provider PeopleSoft, however, believes that the workforce will have a very different face in the years to come.

"Using the latest technologies, businesses can empower workers by offering them flexibility, variable hours and the opportunity to telecommute," says Henson. "With the trend towards organisations becoming networks of small teams working together to achieve an organisation's goals, businesses are moving towards a wall-less community, both internally and externally.

"Around the Western world," she says, "organisations are shifting from physical hands-on work to a situation where the workforce becomes intellectual capital for the organisation."

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