Feature Story

The Telework Movement Goes Down Under

by Melissa Jun Rowley

Australia prepares for its first national Telework Week as it looks to double the number of people who work remotely in the next few years.

For the sake of potentially saving businesses millions of dollars and reducing traffic pollution, Australia is encouraging as many employers and employees to try teleworking on for size with the country's first National Telework Week, scheduled for November 12-16. Taking the lead from President Obama, who signed the Telework Enhancement Act in 2010 to boost telecommuting in the federal government, Australia has established a National Digital Economy Goal to double its total number of people who work remotely by 2020.

According to Australia's Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy, hitting this target will take the country's teleworking rate from six percent to 12 percent, roughly equal to the amount of telework done in the United States. Fortunately for Oz, the deployment of the National Broadband Network (NBN) is underway, delivering high-speed broadband throughout Australia, and allowing for collaboration, the sharing of files, and high-definition video conferencing among businesses that want to reap the benefits of allowing employees to work from home.

When Senator Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy announced plans for National Telework Week in January, he stressed how an increase in teleworking will benefit Australia economically, environmentally, and socially all the way down to the family construct.

As the world's largest consumer of web conferencing tools in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia is poised to seamlessly embrace the government-pushed telework initiative. According to a survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the number of telecommuters in Australia from 2005 to 2008 grew by 7.4 percent, and most of them were women 25 to 44 years old with children. The fact that teleworking is on the rise may be every working parent's dream come true.

Proponents of telework say that in addition to reducing stress at home, the modern way of working can decrease stress on the environment and alleviate traffic pollution. According to the Commonwealth of Australia Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics, the yearly avoidable cost of congestion could reach $20.4 billion in 2020.

However, not every political leader in Oz sees teleworking as the silver bullet for the country's eco-challenges. I recently interviewed Sydney's Lord Mayor Clover Moore, who said that while teleworking can help avoid pollution caused by transport, she thinks more efficient public transportation and workspaces reducing environmental footprints stand to make bigger contributions to the overall solution.

"I think that to overcome the challenge of climate change and environmental sustainability, we will need to use every option available," said Moore. "There is no clear-cut solution, just lots and lots of good ideas that together can make a real difference."

How will trust be instilled? From an economic standpoint, integrating teleworking options for employees can boost productivity, as workers won't need to endure long commutes. This is the upside. On the flipside, there are some cultural issues revolving around trust. Many supervisors may not trust that their staff members are getting anything accomplished when they telecommute. For this reason, managers must become outcome-oriented versus process-oriented. In short, micro-management cannot exist in this scenario.

The University of South Wales School of Business report Managing TeleWorkers: Coming to Grips with Remote Control highlights how crucial it is for organizations to create policy guidelines stipulating that telework should only be practiced by people in "appropriate" staff positions, and should be voluntary, not law. According to the report, the policy should also mandate training for teleworkers to attain an understanding of how communication can flow most effectively. 

Ultimately, successful teleworking situations all come down to discipline. In today's ever-escalating ADHD-infused digital landscape, where people can virtually live in multiple spaces and simultaneously spin cyberspace, it's likely we could all benefit from a little more trust and self-mastery.

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