Teleworking's hidden risks

Business Spectator 2 November 2012

For many, the word ‘teleworking’ brings to mind a picture of a person sitting on a beach with a notebook. The reality is a little less encouraging.

Teleworking or telecommuting as it is also known has not become a feature of everyday life and less than 10 per cent of Australians have a telework agreement with their employer.

Which leads to the question why? The reasons might surprise and at the same time cause some concern.

Where we currently sit with Teleworking

A study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in June 2000 found that 430,000 people engaged in some form of teleworking. This figure had increased by 370 per cent by 2006 when another study by the ABS found that 1,595,500 Australians teleworked at least some of the time. This amounts to about 17 per cent of the workforce.

While the amount of employees in teleworking seems to be increasing, the number of employers offering teleworking arrangements remains low.

In August 2011, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy offered insight into where Australia stands in terms of teleworking.

“According to the ABS, just six per cent of employees from Australia have reported having any kind of telework arrangement with their employer.”

He went on to contrast our efforts to that of other countries.

“In the US, 10 per cent of US employees telework at least one day a month and eight European Union countries reported that more than 10 per cent of workers involved in telework a quarter of the time or more and that was in 2005," he said.

One of the government’s goals as part of its Digital Economy initiative is to double teleworking agreements in Australia to more than 12 per cent. It’s attempting to push the National Broadband Network as an enabler of this goal and is holding a National Teleworking week from November 12 to November 16 to promote awareness of the trend. In light of this, the government’s NBN website includes the following reasons for more Australians to work from home:

  • Improve workforce participation opportunities
  • Boost enterprise productivity
  • Reduce urban congestion on roads and public transport, especially at peak times
  • Reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption associated with commuting
  • Improve the economic and cultural vitality of local areas as the workforce decentralises
  • Provide time and cost savings for employees

The downside to Teleworking

The government paints the move to teleworking as being quite a rosy endeavour, however there are some less talked about downsides to this tech trend.

While employers benefit from having to provide less office space – and therefore pay less on rent and utilities for an office – employees need to make sure they aren’t receiving a dud deal with their teleworking agreement.

Employees must ensure that their teleworking agreement includes allowances to cover the additional costs faced when working from home. Some of these costs include telephone, electricity, internet access and provision of a suitable computer or notebook.

Of course, if your company is paying these costs then they may want to ensure that you are using these resources for your work. With teleworking eliminating the ability for managers to directly supervise work, companies may turn to technology such as video VoIP and monitoring systems to ensure that their employees keep on task.

On one extreme, an organisation may even go so far as to install an invasive monitoring application on the teleworker’s computer that monitors time spent working and utilises a camera to take photos at regular intervals. It’s also possible for someone at the company office to take control of the teleworker’s computer camera to see if the teleworker is at the computer.

Taking teleworking to the extreme

Jumping on the teleworking bandwagon may also give companies a taste of another tech trend, outsourcing.

There may come a point where an organisation decides that if an employee doesn’t need to be in the office, it may be cheaper to replace them with lower cost overseas workers. Many companies already utilise this approach with customer call centres, information technology support and software or system development.

The internet has already created a large pool of skilled teleworking enabled labour that companies can harness at a lower cost. vWorker is just one example of a site that provides companies with skilled professionals that can work for them on a job-by-job basis.

The reality is that unless you provide a specialised service it is likely that there will be people from emerging economies who will do most tasks for much less.

Consider the risks before you leap onto the trend

The gloss of the teleworking trend seems to overshadow the risks. Technology may now enable greater teleworking possibilites, but its also given a boost to employers potental to spy on their staff and outsource labour. 

Employees wanting a teleworking policy need to ensure that they are not being blindsided by employers with the prospect of added workplace freedom.

Sure, the prospect of working from home – or from a tropical beach – may seem tempting, but it won’t mean much if your receiving a rawer deal from your workplace to do it. 

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University