Is Telework a Remote Possibility?
There have been migrations to and from centralized workplaces before. The classic event was possibility the Industrial Revolution where, according to Arnold Toynbee, “the slowly dissolving framework of medieval industrial life …. was suddenly broken in pieces by the mighty blows of the steam engine and the power loom.” This is picturesque imagery but not an entirely accurate portrayal of a transformation that took a very long time.
In recent years there has been a movement away from shop floors and factories. The apparel industry has re-invented piece work, allowing contracted employees to deliver set volumes of finished product to agreed times and standards. Factors at work here include the increasing difficulty of assured profitability in highly competitive industries, driving a need to cut overheads, and a growing recognition that not all the best quilts came from quilting bees.
Movement from the employer’s facilities to one’s own has not been limited to piece work manufacturing. An Ottawa publishing firm decentralized its operations several years ago by establishing on-line access from contractees homes to a small office which handled client relations and administration. Such “distance workers” deliver an agreed volume of “intellectual property.”
But such success stories have not been enough to significantly impact office employment. The “default” is still working at the owner’s place of employment, usually in the city centre or in a commercial-industrial node somewhere on the periphery. Given the high costs of office space and commuting, one wonders why there has been such slow change in this area.
Conversations with diverse sector managers suggest the inability to supervise remote workers is the major stumbling block. There are also concerns about technology requirements (and related security issues), health and safety, and issues related to performance definition and measurement. But supervision is a recurring theme. Some managers doubt that employees can work without continual supervision and the benefit of the office culture: being able to readily pick up the mood and culture swings of the company.
There is some real risk that off-site employees could become “out of sync.” But what about the fear that employees without daily supervision will be incapable of carrying out their duties effectively?
I wondered about remote work situations. Having worked and traveled throughout the Northwest Territories I had seen the remotest of the remote. That had to be the single officer RCMP detachment in a village on Baffin Island. There, the officer was responsible not only for the administration of justice in the land, but was also the embodiment of the Government of Canada and from time to time, all its agencies. I called the RCMP to ask how much training an experience such an officer would have to have before being posted to such a situation. The answer? From six months to a year of direct supervision by a senior officer following graduation from the police academy.
How can this work? How can senior management in a national organization sleep at night knowing that young constables are carrying the torch, on their own, without immediate access to advice, backup or firm procedures for all possible contingencies including life and death situations?
I think such remote work is successful because the employees involved have had the benefit of full immersion in the culture and values of the organization. I believe they enjoy the respect and trust of their superiors. I believe their roles and responsibilities, and the conditions under which they need to seek higher authority have been well codified. I am quite certain they are empowered to take risks and make judgments based on their knowledge, abilities and the circumstances of the situation. I just don’t see how it could work otherwise.
For teleworkers facing the much less daunting task of writing a new parking procedure for those who are still commuting to the office, requirements need not be so well defined and administered. But if managers are to allow workers to stay at home, and if such managers are to have “peace of mind” there will have to be a good understanding indeed of what the expectations are on both sides. And there will have to be many other changes. Those remaining at the office will need to regularly communicate with remote workers to inform them of informal as well as formal events; of new ideas and concerns emerging at the central workplace; as well as ensuring such employees are on all distribution lists.
If an organization can reach into a remote community on Baffin Island and provide standard, high quality service while ensuring that its officer on site remains in tune with her regional and national counterparts, we should be able to have a policy analyst working in his basement in a way that keeps his boss happy.
One wonders how a Toynbee of the future might describe these changes in work patterns and how we view the world of work. At the 2nd International Workshop on Teleworking in Amsterdam, participants from 16 countries generated 467 pages of proceedings on subjects that included:
– virtual innovation and implementation;
– virtual network dynamics
– the social dynamics of virtual working.
In conclusion, I’d say the subject may be alive. But at this stage we’re not sure if it is well.
[This essay appeared in a 1999 edition of the Journal of the Financial Management Institute of Canada]
David G. Jones B.A., M.A.
If you found this of interest, have a look at my work on strategic planning, Knowledge Management and governance – drawn from studies conducted 2300 years ago in China.
Comments welcomed at Shibumi.firstname.lastname@example.org