Review: The high road towards teleworking
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in the World of Work, 2001
The introduction of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is changing the geography of work.
For an increasing number of people, work is no longer something which takes place simply at a single centralised workplace. Instead of having to travel to work, the work now comes to them, brought through telecommunications links to wherever they may happen to be. As a consequence, new ways of working are developing. Mobile working, home-based working and the use of satellite offices and temporary touch-down bases are becoming increasingly common.
The relocation of work is taking place across national boundaries as well, as services which once would have been undertaken locally are now being undertaken elsewhere, hundreds or possibly thousands of kilometres distant. For example, German callers telephoning with an airline booking enquiry may have their call routed to a handling centre in South Africa. Callers from mainland France may find their calls answered in Morocco, whilst customers in California ringing a consumer helpline may be answered at a centre in one of Canadas Atlantic provinces.
Software development for United States companies is undertaken in India. Data about British bank customers is analysed in China. There are even reports that the guards who monitor the security cameras in Genevas banks are now located in north Africa.
The name usually given to all these developments is teleworking. Twenty or so years ago when the term first emerged, it was taken to mean simply the opportunity to work from home, using telecom links to replace commuting with what was called telecommuting. Since then, however, the breadth of the concept has expanded dramatically. Now teleworking is usually defined as any form of remote working away from a central office or production facility, which is enabled by new information and communication technologies.
Many people have discussed the implications of telework. Some have seen it as offering a bright new dawn for both workers and businesses, with individuals benefiting from the opportunity to balance work and home commitments more easily and with companies gaining from higher productivity and a more flexible workforce. But telework has also been viewed less positively, as potentially leading to isolated workers, reduced employment rights, and a global race to the bottom.
A new report, the High Road to Teleworking, from the International Labour Organization [www.ilo.org/safework/telework] looks at the evidence from both sides, and makes a strong case for a concerted approach to telework implementation which highlights the positive features whilst avoiding the dangers. The report offers detailed suggestions for how to follow the high road forward towards telework. "The aim is to maximise the potential of this new way of working in a human-centred rather than technological-determinist way, so that human capital, new technology and new forms of work organisation can come together to create growth, jobs and better working conditions", says the report.
Just how significant a feature is telework, however? Telework suffered from excessive hype by early writers on the subject, so that in reaction some people are now suggesting that it is likely to remain only a marginal or minor aspect of working life. The ILO report firmly rejects this view, arguing that telework has been developing through a preliminary phase but is now on the point of reaching critical mass, at least in some industrialised countries. As evidence, it looks at data from a number of countries which are now analysing telework uptake in official national statistics. For example, in the United Kingdom the number of regular and occasional teleworkers has now reached about 6% of the total labour force. Perhaps more significantly, this figure has increased by almost 40% in just two years. Similar findings from the United States, Australia and other European Union countries also point to a striking recent growth in the development of telework. However, one thing has become clear: the numbers of people who meet the original very restricted definition of the home-based teleworker, working full-time from their electronic cottage, remains relatively small. Teleworking is becoming one aspect of a more general move towards new, flexible, forms of work organisation.
The High Road to Teleworking also explores the development of transborder and offshore telework, looking in particular at the prospects this could offer for developing countries. It identifies three waves of development the first associated with relatively low-value work, such as the data input and back-office services which were relocated to various offshore locations in the 1980s and 1990s, and the second represented by Indias successful development of an internationally important software development sector, at a much higher level in terms of the value being added by the work. The report also looks at possible indications of a forthcoming third wave, exploring for instance the potential of multipurpose telecentres in isolated, rural and marginalised urban areas which are being established in countries such as South Africa, Uganda, Senegal, Mexico and Bangladesh. In several of these countries, the role of women appears to be particularly significant.
"The development of teleworking internationally is associated with the growing international trade in services," says the report. "This manifestation of globalisation is a mixed blessing. For developing countries, the road to be followed is a narrow one, which could lead to the exacerbation of economic dependency and the growth of two-tiered societies, but which could also provide a chance of leapfrogging at least part of the gap with the industrialised world."
Does teleworking, whether in developed or developing countries, lead to an improved quality of life for the individuals concerned or to less satisfactory working conditions? The short answer is that it depends. The High Road to Teleworking report looks in turn at a number of factors which can affect this, including health and safety matters, the issue of stress, and the difficulties and dilemmas which can come from trying to reconcile work with family commitments.
There are examples to be found both of good practice and poor practice. "In terms of autonomy and responsibility teleworking may operate in different ways. There are cases where teleworking results in workers having a great deal of control over their work. This, in turn, may increase job satisfaction and motivation. There are however cases, especially in unskilled and semi-unskilled teleworking, where the job content can be poor, autonomy very restricted, job appreciation limited and conditions of employment less advantageous than those for other workers," says the report.
One particular question investigated is that of the employment status of the workers affected. In some particular cases a move to teleworking has been closely linked with a change for the individual from formal employee status to that of a self-employed contractor. This raises anxieties for those, including trade union organisations, who fear that new, more flexible forms of work organisation can be used to weaken established employment protection and to create spurious forms of quasi self-employment.
Self-employment has been growing quickly in many developed countries, a development identified by the OECD among others, and the boundaries between self-employment and employee status are also becoming increasingly blurred. The European Commission, for instance, has identified this as an area which requires debate between the social partners, and a round of discussions on the issue was launched late last year. Because of the importance of the distinction between employment and self-employment for social protection and taxation policies, a number of individual countries are also looking at this area closely. The High Road to Teleworking explores the way in which teleworkers are treated in terms of employment status in, among others, Sweden, Japan and Korea.
More generally, the report explores examples from around the world where government bodies, employers and trade unions have come together to develop good practice in telework implementation. One example is that of Ireland, where the National Advisory Council on Teleworking, a body made up of representatives of business, the trade unions, the government and academia, produced a Code of Practice and a model teleworking agreement. The Code (now known as the Code of Practice on e-Working) covers such areas as the selection of individuals for teleworking, requirements for home-based offices, communications policies for companies with teleworkers, training issues , security concerns and employment terms and conditions. The Code also recommends regular monitoring and review of telework programmes.
Similar agreements have been made in, among others, Norway, Sweden and Italy, whilst in the telecoms sector a pan-European set of guidelines on telework was agreed between employers and the trade union body UNI-Europa in January this year.
According to the report, there is now a wealth of experience in developing agreements and guidelines to ensure that teleworking can be introduced in a positive way, to the benefit of both individuals and employers. The aim, it suggests, must be to seek this high road approach, creating a virtuous circle which brings together human capital, new technology and work organisation to create economic growth, competitiveness, more jobs and better working conditions. As the report says, "triggering the virtuous circle is the great challenge at stake".
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