Whatever happened to teleworking?

FREDERICTON, N.B. — When Svein Bergum spoke at a technology conference in San Diego last May, he noticed that that out of 450 papers on the conference agenda, his was the only one on telework. He made the same observation at another conference later last year, and he noted that last year’s International Telework Academy conference in Liverpool, U.K., drew a smaller crowd than the 2004 event.

That led Bergum – a researcher with the Eastern Norway Research Institute in Lillehammer – to ask his colleagues around the world a tough question: Has telework failed?

He presented the results of that survey at this year’s International Workshop on Telework, sponsored by the International Telework Academy here this week. About a quarter of the 31 researchers Bergum polled – all of whom study telework – believed that the concept has not delivered. More thought it just isn’t being talked about as much or is being called something else.

Noting an apparent decline in research on telework, Bergum asked for other researchers’ opinions on three possible explanations: Telework has failed; telework has diffused and become common so that little attention is paid to it any more; or it is simply being called by other names.

The majority of respondents to Bergum’s survey favoured some combination of the second and third answers. As one respondent put it, “ the concept is dead, but the reality is alive.” Lots of people are telecommuting, but most aren’t talking about it much. “Telework in the broader sense has become sufficiently diffused and commonplace as to excite much less interest,” Bergum concluded, and “the concept of telework has itself become sufficiently fuzzy so as to not lend itself to either measurement or much serious debate as a topic.”

Today, he said, people talk about “alternative work arrangements,” but not about telework.

Still, Bergum said in some ways telework has failed to live up to expectations. He recalls setting up a neighbourhood work centre while conducting research for Norwegian Telecom in the late 1980s – and then as market manager several years later, making the decision to shut the centre down. Satellite work facilities haven’t been a big success, Bergum said, and telework hasn’t succeeded as a large-scale solution. Yet many people work from home or other remote locations part of the time.

The obstacles to telework haven’t changed much in the past 20 years. In another presentation at the conference, Geoffrey Dick, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, discussed research on those issues he did in partnershp with graduate student Skye Whiteman. The problems of supervising remote workers while coping with possible privacy issues, and the security of corporate data and assets, are the main obstacles, he said.

Telework requires a level of trust that isn’t there with all employees, Dick said, and he hypothesized that this is less of an obstacle in the United States than in some other countries because in U.S. workplaces, the idea of managers deciding whether to allow telecommuting on a case-by-case basis is more acceptable than in many countries, where unions would be more likely to object if workers weren’t treated equally.

Research on the use of telework as a way for disabled workers to enter or re-enter the work force, found the same obstacles. In a survey of about 1,000 employers without telework programs by The Workplace Inc., a Bridgeport, Conn., career centre, the concerns most often cited were employee productivity, supervision, security and liability risks and a lack of technology infrastructure to support teleworkers, said Dr. Susan Kintner, program implementation manager at The Workplace.

“If we’re going to make telework work for anybody, and particularly for employees with disabilities,” concluded Richard Horne of the U.S. Department of Labor, which funded Kintner’s study, “we’ve got a lot of work to do with employers.”

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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