This essay will discuss the psychological, social and organisational issues surrounding the implementation of teleworking by a corporation. It will explore whether the adoption of teleworking would be advantageous, and to whom, finally outlining possible courses of action for companies of the future.
A successful company needs to move with the times, and adapt itself to new challenges and potentials in the future. An interesting technique of doing this is to utilise a method of working know as telework. Here, work traditionally performed in an office is conducted at home – by no means a new or revolutionary idea. But what is new and potentially very wide reaching, is the rate of technological advance that has occurred over the past 40 years. With the advent of ever faster and more efficient microchips and telephone connections, has arisen the technology to substitute communications capabilities for travel, to a central work location – the home. (Olson, 1982)
Teleworking covers a wide variety of remote work, including ‘neighbourhood work centres’ or ‘satellite work centres’. However, this essay will consider one type of telework – where the individuals transfer their workstations to their home, on the understanding that this then becomes their workplace. This results in a migration away from the office on an average working day.
There are a number of benefits for all concerned, making telework an extremely attractive option. For the individual, telework can offer much greater flexibility than at present – individuals can work at their own pace and at the times when they are most productive, thus avoiding the infamous ‘Monday morning blues’. Working at home means that time and money can be saved from commuting and put to better use, such as being with ones family for longer periods. The way is open, then, for the teleworker to gain more autonomy and self-control, and remove themselves from an often distracting office environment.
From the point of view of the employer, there is a reduction in office rent, space, furniture, and all the trappings accompanying office work – Rank Xerox operated just such a scheme, where the office rents and rates were calculated to be three times the actual salaries paid to London head staff. Now, though, it has to be noted that office rents have reduced somewhat since the expensive eighties. There will be less need for the supervision of lateness and absentees, and there is evidence of higher productiveness among teleworkers.
A further incentive is the status of the teleworker. In many cases they will be employed in routine tasks, and can be treated as subcontractors instead of employers, again a policy of Rank Xerox. The company will thus reduce their costs by being exempt from providing such fringe benefits as a pension or company car, and so on. Moreover, a convenient pool of labour will exist, to be tapped in times of high demand, and employees can be retained with the company if they move to another area, or leave due to illness or pregnancy.
For society at large, adopting telework enables vital work to be relocated to economically impoverished areas. It is quite possible for teleworkers to be recruited and working at home in Moss Side, for example, although there are practical considerations such as the risk of burglary of equipment. There is at least the possibility that teleworking may go some way towards reducing the polarization of the North/South divide. A whole new labour force exists to be tapped from the disabled sector – any competent person who is homebound now has the opportunity to work, gaining satisfaction from employment and easing the strain on the Welfare State (the 1982 programme from the Department of Industry encouraged the employment of disabled citizens via teleworking).
By the turn of the century a great consideration will have to be an environmental one. Teleworking naturally cuts down immensely on commuting, and a widespread adoption of teleworking will be of great benefit to the environment.
However, this is an ideal situation and one which has yet to be achieved, for the introduction of telework poses many potential pitfalls. A factor which can so easily be overlooked is the psychological one – since the onus is on the individual when discussing telework, this is a vital aspect.
Forester (1988) asserts that the reason telework has not become as popular as first predicted, is because many writers underestimate the psychological problems of working at home. For example, Baer (1985) notes how easy it had become for people to place a computer in their bedrooms and work on it there during waking hours. Yet this does not account for the common perspective of viewing work as something distinct from the home. If work is brought to one’s home, the boundary between the two becomes blurred, and the worker can feel threatened and frustrated that they are unable to retreat from an office to a relaxing home environment.
Atkinson (1986) notes the existence of psychological barriers, including lack of motivation and discipline, poor self-organization and time management, loneliness, and family stress. Rather than happily combining family and work, teleworking can lead to the contrary position where the worker must abstract themselves from home life – shutting themselves off from spouses and children. Yet the causes lie deeper than merely working in a home, and demonstrate an inability to be a self-manager.
A primary factor is one of personal traits – teleworkers need to be carefully selected for the right skills and frame of mind. This is not an easy task since teleworking is as yet a small-scale practice. The need for good self-management skills is crucial, and these must be acquired through training.
An interesting contribution comes from Huws (1990). She agrees upon the psychological problems of telework, but explores them from a feminist stance. Where most male writers view the home as a place of relaxation, feminist literature portrays it as an institute of repression and isolation for the average housewife. Writers like Forester suddenly discovered what women have known for years – that working at home is isolating and depressing for much of the time. This suggests that the fault is at least as much the institute of the home, as any new ideas about bringing the office to the family.
Huws (1984) conducted a survey for the British Equal Opportunities Commission in 1982. She concluded that a typical teleworker was a married woman in her mid-thirties who worked at home in order to be with her family. Most were computer professionals with an average of ten years’ on-site experience.
A good thing found from Huws’ study was the flexibility offered by telework. Some subjects relished the lack of commuting and others considered themselves more productive in the home. Overall, 35% expressed a preference for teleworking, balanced against 24% who preferred the office. We have to remember, though, that present teleworkers are invariably highly motivated individuals who are carefully selected, and scarcely representative of the general working populus. Moreover, the longer a user is engaged in telework, the more disillusioned he/she is likely to become, after an initial wave of enthusiasm. (Forester reported this, for example)
This also highlights a difference in the individuals tasks. Male workers tend to be professionals, working on more interesting tasks and receiving higher pay than their female counterparts – who perform routinised activities such as basic data-entry, for lower wages. Career enhancement is also important – there is undoubtedly a lack of visibility and fewer opportunities for social contact, and we should not underestimate the importance of status in an individual’s profession. On the one hand, this can cut down on sexist or racial prejudice, but the comparative anonymity associated with telework undoubtedly harms promotion prospects. A progressive company will recognise this and take such steps as circulating social get-togethers for teleworkers, and adopting their approach to favour individuals on the basis of the work they produce, not how many times they are in contact with influential people.
In fact, the approach of the company and its managers is as important as the characteristics of the teleworkers themselves. For managers, a central office allows the informal observation and evaluation of employees. In addition, many people, including managers, find it difficult to trust people who they rarely see. This can be overcome, but will require a new approach from a new generation of managers and workers alike. Supervision of teleworkers thus requires new approaches in training, performance evaluation and quality control. This is easily said, but managers are likely to be highly resistant to a significant change in a well established working pattern. Perhaps a new generation of managers, more comfortable with the concept of telework, will accommodate it better. Olson (1983) found some common characteristics of a teleworker – self-motivation, self-discipline, few social contacts beyond work, a supportive family. Managers need to trust the teleworker and must become accustomed to relinquishing some control over the teleworker.
Note the case of Rank Xerox, who saw the need to move from their networking programme. This was because the staff encountered a lack of direct contact with colleagues, a difficulty in working intently at home, organising their time effectively, and a lack of secretarial support.
A further consideration is from the unions – regarding the potential exploitation of the teleworker. The constant presence of a terminal encourages more work, and it would be practically impossible to enforce standards of health and safety. Moreover, the dispersion of workers would weaken union membership and solidarity. There are also important legal issues involved. What if a teleworker sustain a work related injury such as RSI? Would the company share the blame if it encouraged long hours by providing terminals at home, or would it escape by arguing that the teleworker freely chose to work such hours, and is thus entirely responsible?
The government might take action by ensuring employees are classified as conventional office workers, not self-employed or contracted. Ironically this is a discouragement for companies to implement teleworking. Again, the government would probably have to extend office health and safety regulations to cover the home in such cases.
We must bear in mind the argument from Zuboff (1982) regarding supervision. Since machine supervision only provides a very primitive quantitative measurement of performance, workers will care little for the actual quality of their work. Close machine supervision in any situation has been shown to be potentially very stressful for workers of any environment.
This brings us to consider the issue of payment – which would vary with the nature of the tasks and the type -professional or clerical- of teleworker involved. A piece-rate system may work with those concerned with simple data entry (but not necessarily); yet professionals working on complex tasks are much trickier to evaluate. Perhaps we could follow example of the FI group, who use time-based payment combined with the setting of ‘deliverables’, ie, fixed work targets. The setting of these targets is a job in itself, and are assessed by a variety of methods (team meetings, quantitative and qualitative analysis as well as computer usage time). These are very closely monitored, and organisationally quite demanding.
As Olson notes, large barriers to teleworking are the organisational structures and managerial attitudes of the corporation. She says that employers still encourage their workers to closely identify with their corporation. A decentralised, dispersed workforce plays against this, in much the same way that it damages union membership. Also, managers like to see their employees and build up trust with them. Managers are reserved in both the United States and Europe in their attitudes towards teleworking. They see it as posing great organisational difficulties, and are resistant to the change and disruption it is almost certain to bring.
Bearing this in mind, preparation before setting up a teleworking arm of the company is vital. There must be discussion with key managers in the organisation, and future teleworkers, as well as a series of feasibility studies and several different scenarios of what is planned. For professionals, used to relying on other staff for computer input, they may need to be trained to a level of computer competence. Managers, too, should be given an insight into the lives of the teleworkers so as to empathise with them, and trained to deal with this new type of communication. Consider also the day-to-day management of the teleworker. Again, this calls for a change in style and attitude from both parties.
Managers must trust their teleworkers, or resentment and inefficiency will almost certainly result. The whole notion of communication via telework is also much more formal than conventional conversation, with tasks being outlined in a much clearer manner. This may seem efficient, but can be very impersonal. Good feedback and better social cues help the matter, but the amount of feedback is necessarily limited using email. Even in real-time communication (as in the TALK function under Unix) communication seems very distant and formal.
Possible solutions lie in the future. With projects like British Telecom’s laying down of an information ‘superhighway’, ISDN, technology for the high-speed transmission of data is bettering itself all the time. Concepts such as video-conferencing provide better means of relating to the person you are electronically communicating with, and this promise is increased further with ideas of virtual meetings. Here, persons would meet and discuss work in the world of virtual reality, conversing and reacting to each other in a way not entirely different from conventional meetings. If it is technically difficult to implement, it is not impossible, and the added interaction achieved through VR should help overcome existing psychological barriers to tele-communicating.
Teleworking as a major social force is a long way off. We must be careful not to over-emphasise its impact – for example, even if teleworking suddenly became vastly more popular, would this involve major structural re-organisation? Perhaps there would be a central core of full time office workers, with a periphery of teleworkers. Merely because a hierarchy is not immediately present in teleworking, this does not mean it is not there at all. Harvey (1982) sees it as quite liberating in that telecommuting by-passes bureaucracy and breaks down traditional hierarchy. Yet the other side of the argument is that tasks will become increasingly routinised, unions will lose power, members will become deskilled, along the lines set out by Braverman, and people will be easier to monitor.
It all depends on the task, of course, and the worker involved. Professionals do suffer from some of the complaints of clerical workers, such as lower pay than their office colleagues, but will they gain more control, or just be subject to a more subtle form of indirect control from their company? The basic power relations would probably remain, although the potential to break away would be increased.
Maintaining commitment to the organisation relies upon open lines of communication between the home and central office. This is only likely to occur if regular meetings at the central office take place, but again, computer conferencing and virtual meetings could resolve some of these concerns. Further mechanisms need to be put into place ensuring that teleworkers are not overlooked for promotion. This can be achieved, and a fair method of assessment will contribute.
Teleworking promises many things. It’s most attractive psychological aspect is the flexibility in work patterns that it can offer. Yet this is counteracted by the isolation that the vast majority of teleworkers feel. It is true that this isolation has been felt by housewives for years, yet this is no comforting excuse for telework, but a damning condemnation of home-based work. So although telework appears to be an ideal return to a family environment, reminiscent of John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ policy, the reality can be quite different.
One might argue that the individual has potentially more freedom with telework, yet a Marxian analysis would condemn it as alienating and damaging to the consciousness of the worker. A pessimist would fear the rise of a faceless society, a melee of individuals suffering from mass apathy. To counteract psychological problems of actually performing the work itself, new technology could be employed – again, virtual worlds seem to offer more psychological and social cues than merely staring into a monitor.
From the corporation’s perspective, great savings could be made in office costs, and by externalising labour into poorly-paid routine data entry. Yet this would have to be weighed against the organisational upheaval, and the re-training of both teleworkers and their superiors. Although daunting, much of these goals can be achieved with commitment and discipline.
One area of concern is of how to replace the informal training network which surrounds every office. It is well known that the most efficient way of achieving something at work is not necessarily done so by following strict company rules – indeed, it can be quite the opposite. Note, for example, the traditional union policy of ‘working to rule’. How this informality can be captured in an area of work which necessitates clear, precise methods of working, is difficult to envisage. Perhaps, given time, the need for such informal practices will be banished in any case. In the future, data input devices may drastically cut down the need for human involvement, or even eliminate it altogether.
Society could gain much from mass teleworking – crucial environmental issues like the reduction of car exhaust emission; easing the strain on the Welfare State by employing disabled or injured citizens, and even more fundamental notions like a change in the very nature of work itself. Telework can be linked to much wider issues, such as the oversupply of women with routine data-entry skills, the lack of good cheap childcare (necessitating that the worker stays at home with the children), and the overcoming of the ‘technofear’ which still pervades our society in the 1990s.
If implemented correctly, then, a corporation could gain much from teleworking, as could individuals and society at large. If implemented incorrectly, it will become yet another in a long line of potential utopias which has fallen by the wayside.
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