Telework in New South Wales
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Flexible Working, 1999
Businesses in Sydney are looking at a range of innovative flexible working programmes including teleworking to help them offset the disruption and traffic chaos which will accompany the celebrations and the razzmatazz of next year's Olympic Games.
Physical preparations for the Games, which run for two weeks in September 2000, are obvious throughout the city, from the moment a visitor arrives at Sydney international airport and has to dodge the major building works to find the exit. Preparations by businesses for the Olympic Games period may be less obvious but are nevertheless actively under way. Planners warn that, at the peak of the period, the city can expect as many as half a million extra people travelling through the city each day. Unfortunately Sydney is already a city where the roads and transport infrastructure are almost at breaking point.
As well as exploring the possibilities of teleworking, businesses are being urged to consider other stratagems to get them through the Olympic period. Suggestions include car pooling arrangements, the introduction of compressed working weeks and the exploitation of staggered working hours. Sydney firms have been warned that traffic problems will not necessarily be limited just to the two weeks of the Games, but will start during the pre- Games build-up as athletes and media representatives arrive in the city and will continue during the subsequent Paralympic Games.
Fortunately one of the public agencies most directly involved in liaising with businesses over their plans has itself considerable direct experience of flexible working programmes. The New South Wales Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) first introduced a successful telework pilot for members of its staff in November 1993, which it subsequently formalised into a Working at Home policy and programme. Much of the RTA's experience has been distilled into a very comprehensive telework manual, 'How to Set up a Teleworking Program', which the Authority has made available to other employers in Australia. More recently the RTA has also had experience of operating a small Telecentre, available on a drop-in basis for employees.
The RTA can legitimately claim, therefore, to be a major Australian pioneer of telework, and it remains probably the only employer in the country with significant numbers of staff teleworking.
In total about 7,500 employees work for the RTA in New South Wales (one of a series of similar organisations run in each of Australia's states). RTA construction gangs engaged on upgrading and repairing roads are a familiar sight in the state, but the Authority also has responsibility for driver licensing, vehicle registration, road safety and traffic management issues. As can be appreciated, the RTA's initial involvement in telework sprang from its interest in the implications for traffic behaviour and transport utilisation, rather than, say, organisational or HR concerns. One impetus was an extensive 1992 study of transport in NSW which indicated that a new approach to transport management would be needed.
The RTA's telework pilot ran for a six month period, and was launched in November 1993. Seventy-seven members of staff were recruited to the pilot, among them the following:
However, the pilot also included as participants other members of teleworkers' households, teleworkers' supervisors and a small control group of employees who continued working in the office. In total, 259 people were involved:
The teleworkers (most of whom lived in Sydney) worked from their homes, generally for part of the working week. The pilot was particularly concerned with transport implications, and the teleworkers' travel patterns on telework days were closely monitored through a series of questionnaires and diaries, were compared with their travel patterns on non-teleworking days, and were also contrasted with those of the control group. As Marie Edwards of the RTA points out, the Authority was also interested in the travel patterns of other members of teleworkers' households: "We wanted to track what happened to their cars - were the cars sitting idle, or were they being used by other members of the family? We arranged for very extensive trip diaries to be maintained," she says. Marie Edwards, together with her colleague Richard Horsburgh, has played a lead role in the RTA's development of flexible working.
Detailed findings from the telework pilot were later published by the RTA in a report, 'Teleworking: Report on Travel Impacts'. This study included the following key findings:
- teleworking significantly reduced travel by teleworkers, without a significant increase in overall travel by other household members
- there was an overall decrease in both car and public transport travel by teleworkers and their household members, but car travel by household members appeared to have increased slightly
- travel reduction benefits of teleworking appeared to have been greater when teleworking days fell on Thursdays and Fridays, rather than earlier in the week.
The pilot also explored other effects of teleworking: "In general terms, people's productivity increased on telework days and workers' satisfaction also increased," Marie Edwards says.
The pilot was concluded in the summer of 1994 and the RTA then proceeded to develop a formal Working From Home policy, which was adopted in 1996. Staff who want to work from home are required under the policy to discuss five issues with their managers:
- whether the work can be completed efficiently from home
Marie Edwards points out that home working is not an option for RTA staff who deal direct with the public, for example in registration and licensing offices. She says that the staff who tend to take advantage of home working tend to be more senior members of staff. The Authority itself suggests a number of jobs where teleworking may be suitable: research & development, telephone customer service or marketing, computer systems analysis, legal work, management & planning, engineering & design, data entry, technical writing, correspondence writing, word processing, policy development, contract preparation, financial planning & budgeting, administrative work, computer planning and project management.
With its Working from Home policy in place, the RTA turned to make its experience more widely available. The telework manual 'How to Set up a Teleworking Program', runs to over 200 pages including a set of useful appendices. These contain, among other things, the text of a model introductory leaflet for staff about telework, questionnaires for use with staff and their supervisors when selecting teleworkers, model time sheets for teleworkers, and detailed suggestions for issues to cover on telework training courses. Also included as appendices are the text of a suggested telework policy, based on the RTA's own policy, and of a Teleworking Agreement to supplement the standard employment contract between employers and their employees.
The main body of the manual follows the typical steps taken by companies first introducing telework:
- How to design your program:
Very helpfully, the RTA has placed the full text of its telework manual on its web site (in standard PDF format). The manual, and other telework related material, can be found at www.rta.nsw.gov.au
Despite these substantial efforts, most of the RTA's staff spend most of their time working in a traditional workplace. Marie Edwards says that many RTA staff who work occasionally from home would not necessarily consider themselves to be teleworkers, and (partly for this reason) she does not offer current figures for the number of RTA staff who are teleworking. In contrast, perhaps, to the more rigid structures of the telework pilot period, the impression now is that the RTA is happy to take a flexible approach. Whilst some RTA staff work regularly from home, others do so only on an ad-hoc or occasional basis.
Given this degree of flexibility, the RTA no longer offers the allowance to home-workers for additional heating or lighting costs or other additional home expenses which was available during the pilot period. "Some people are teleworking more than others - how could we make this fair?" says Marie Edwards. Directly incurred expenses, such as telephone costs, are reimbursed, however. The RTA is happy for staff to use their own home computers for work use, though supervisors can arrange for RTA equipment to be supplied if necessary. A code of conduct covers privacy and security issues for employees working at home.
In 1997 a review of teleworking in the RTA was undertaken for the Authority's Chief Executive Ron Christie. From this report came the decision to set up a trial telecentre, which staff could use on a hot-desking basis. The telecentre was established last year in West Gosford, using facilities at an existing RTA motor registry centre and heavy vehicle checking station. West Gosford is about eighty kilometres north of Sydney, for commuters a road journey that typically takes an hour and a half each way. It is also a similar distance south of the major town of Newcastle, another important employment centre.
The telecentre makes use of space vacated by a reduction in the RTA's registry office services, and has been equipped with eight workstations. Five of these have standard desktop PCs running Windows 95, whilst one has a higher specification machine designed for staff using graphics software or other programs requiring a high degree of computing power. Two workstations are reserved for laptop use. There is also an office available, for private meetings and telephone calls.
Twenty people have been recruited to participate in the telecentre trial, which is currently still in the pilot phase. According to Marie Edwards, a small number of staff are using the centre on a very regular basis, whilst others (especially field workers) are coming in irregularly, for example to check their e-mails and access the RTA's network.
The RTA's experience at West Gosford may take on a wider significance, following a recent announcement by the New South Wales state government that it is considering establishing three much larger telecentres in the area around Sydney for public sector staff to use. The proposals are for centres capable for as many as 75 staff to be established in Wollongong to the south of Sydney, in Penrith at the foot of the Blue Mountains to the west, and at Gosford (next door to West Gosford) to the north.
The telecentres could play a major role in reducing commuting traffic into the central Sydney areas. Nevertheless, since these telecentre proposals were announced by the outgoing NSW government in the immediate run-up to the March 1999 general election, it may be appropriate to follow the Australian traditional attitude of adopting a certain scepticism about politicians' promises. For the record, the Labor government which proposed the telecentre development was returned to power in the election.
The NSW Government has in fact (through its Public Employment Office) already produced a comprehensive Policy and Guidelines on flexible work practices for use by staff of its agencies. This includes a section on home- based working. The policy states:
"Working from home may suit the agency and employees as a short-term or longer-term option... It may be possible, by agreement with employers, for employees to work from home on an ongoing basis, 1-2 days per week. This provision could also be used by employees with a temporary disability or whose disability fluctuates, which prevents their attendance at the workplace."
Australia is a federation of states, and at the federal (as opposed to the state) level there are also policies in place to enable public servants to work from home. A formal Home Based Work agreement was negotiated with the Community & Public Sector Union and approved in 1994.
Nevertheless only a relatively small number of employees have successfully used this agreement to arrange to work from home. The CPSU has suggested that the low uptake, and the slowness of the procedures, may be discouraging other employees from applying.