Meet me halfway

By GovTechReview Staff
Monday, 26 November, 2012

Teleworking and natural advances in technology have changed the definition of just what a 'meeting' is. We look at the latest technologies to help your employees work together better, in the meeting room and out of it.

Telecommuting and remote working have become significant priorities for both enterprise and government over the last few years. The federal government has set a digital economy goal of having 20 percent of employees having a teleworking arrangement with their employers by 2020. However, we’ve still got some way to go.

A recent study from the US reports that ten percent of full time employees work from home at least once a month at present. This statistic represents employees who stay at home during the traditional working day – measured between 8am and 6pm – and doesn’t include employees who bring work home after hours.

Similar studies from the UK found 4.3 percent of employees work from home at least once a month. The European Union also found up to 70 percent of employees work at least part of the time away from a central office (this figure, however, also includes work occurring in non-office, non-home environments such as hotels and on-the-road).

These figures cast a shadow on teleworking in Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, only 2.9 percent of employees work from home at least some of the working week. Achieving 12 percent of employees working from home, as the Digital Economy Goal suggests, is a significant stretch target for both employers, and for the federal government.

Working from home, according to the federal government, will have a significant impact on productivity – and on the environment. The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has suggested the economic benefit to Australia would pass $40bn if 40 percent of workers performed their jobs at home some of the time.

The green benefits of working at home are also significant. A ten percent increase in the number of Australians working from home will lead to a saving of 120 million litres of fuel, a reduction of 320,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions (the equivalent of $6 million in terms of the 'carbon tax'), and a five percent reduction in peak period traffic congestion.

This reduction in congestion will save Australian enterprise the equivalent of $420 million in lost productivity associated with employees sitting in traffic and unable to work.

The question needing to be asked, however, focuses on the technologies and practices associated with hitting the goals set by the federal government. If teleworking is the answer to increased productivity, what can enterprise do to hit those goals?

According to Kate Groom, managing director of Starfish Consulting, a business productivity consulting firm, one key method for using technology to allow working from home and for increasing the productivity of workers who do so, is to ensure they fully understand the technology they’re working with.

“There are features of Microsoft Office that have been there since the 1990s, but people still don’t understand how to use them,” she said. “This is mainly because they haven’t had the proper education and training in using the tools. Most people are thrown in at the deep end, and don’t keep developing their skills."

According to Ms Groom, information systems managers, and HR departments – both of whom are responsible for ensuring their teleworking employees are trained and capable of working from home – the goal is to ultimately look underneath the technology and see the processes involved in getting work done. “When you see underneath the technology, and take a look at the processes, well that’s when you see the bottlenecks, and see what can be simplified,” she commented. “That allows the employee to spend less time managing the process of work, and more time actually completing the tasks they have been assigned.”

Ms Groom also said it’s important to choose language that’s not intimidating to employees, especially when they’re working remotely and unable to have a quick face-to-face meeting to clarify things. “You have to try to avoid technical language and jargon,” she said. “Those things just cause people to shut down.”

The Technology Challenge

If face to face meetings are important – and they are – then there are technological solutions to address that problem for workers who are outside the office for a significant portion of their employment.

Paul Woods, principle specialist, business productivity at Data#3, is one enterprise executive who has embraced telework. According to Mr Woods, the majority of his seven-strong team work outside Data#3’s principal offices in Brisbane.

“I have people all over Australia,” said Mr Woods. “We have built a team, using technology, and we are achieving better outcomes than what we could achieve by having everyone in the same location.”

Mr Woods said his team extensively relies on video conferencing, and on using Microsoft Sharepoint. The idea behind these two tools is “presence”, so employees can see when someone is available, and instantly communicate with them, regardless of their location.

The core video conferencing tool his team use is Skype. It’s a consumer-grade tool that’s seen significant in-roads into the enterprise. The reason for this is simple: it’s cheap, effective and reasonably secure.

“Traditional room-based conferencing systems are painful,” said Mr Woods. The other issue with room-based systems, he notes, is that people need to be in one place to use them. Skype, on the other hand, allows people to communicate from anywhere there’s an Internet connection.

Mr Woods also notes that IT has to get behind the people who are working from home and out on the road. This requires a mindshift on the part of IT, who need to move from a technology-centric point of view to a people-centred focus.

“It needs to empower the people who are at home or on the road,” he said. “And they need to do that by putting the right technology and processes in place to let them do that.”

What’s clear is that technology is the number one enabler for employees engaged in telework. But sometimes, even technology isn’t enough to help people get their work done. As Kate Groom said, the best way to really break down barriers and boost productivity is to talk, face to face. We’re all human, and we’re social animals. Sometimes the oldest solution is still the best. – Joshua Gliddon

This story was originally published in the February-March 2012 issue of Government Technology Review.

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