Andrew Bibby



Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Telework 2001 reports

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first written for a Danish client, 2001

Telework 2001, the eighth in a series of annual European telework conferences, was held under the darkest of clouds, with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon having taken place less than 24 hours before the start. It was not an auspicious time to be discussing the future shape of work in Europe.

Nevertheless, the four hundred or so delegates who assembled in Helsinki’s landmark Finlandia Hall did take advantage of the opportunity to debate the issues arising from the new, ICT-enabled, ways of working — what is increasingly, if somewhat vaguely, being referred to as ‘e-work’.

Erkki Liikanen, European Commissioner for the Information Society, told the conference delegates that teleworking had an important role to play in the search for a more sustainable model of economic development — one where economic growth did not necessarily mean an increase in the use of non-renewable resources or environmental pollution. "Teleworking is key in the strategy to make Europe the foremost knowledge-based and sustainable society", he said, referring to the strategic goal laid down last year at the EU’s Lisbon summit. He added that the European Commission’s forthcoming 6th Framework Programme for research and development would give greater stress to issues of sustainable development. Given these comments, perhaps it was acceptable that Mr Liikanen’s contribution to the conference was made in a video recording rather than face-to-face.

Telework is also very much under debate in another part of the European Commission. As Lars Erik Andreasen from the Commission’s Employment and Social Affairs directorate-general reminded Telework 2001 delegates, the Commission is currently working with the European employers body UNICE and with the European Trade Union Confederation to draw up a voluntary ‘Framework agreement’ on telework. Initial negotiations began last year, with final negotiations to draw up the agreement due to be undertaken this autumn.

Lars Erik Andreasen ran through the main principles which he expected the agreement to adopt, including the voluntary nature of the decision to telework, the right of teleworkers to return to a conventional workplace, the maintenance of employee status, and equal treatment with other workers in areas such as training, health and safety, and redundancy provision. He also stressed the importance of ensuring that teleworkers could participate in the life of their companies.

This agreement will broaden out to the whole European Union the work which has already been successfully undertaken by trade unions in several EU countries, including Denmark, to establish good practice procedures for telework programmes. It also builds on two European-wide sectoral telework agreements, for the telecoms and commerce sectors, signed between employers and Union Network International earlier this year.

This active social partnership suggests that, over the past few years, telework has lost much of its original novelty value and is now increasingly accepted as just another form of work organisation. Other moves towards more flexible working may need much more debate, however. Werner Korte of German telework consultants empirica told the conference of his company’s attempt to develop a statistical index showing the degree of flexibility in work arrangements in EU countries, considering not only teleworking but also flexible working hours and looser contractual relationships between companies and workers. Using a series of statistical indicators, empirica claims that the UK, Sweden and Finland lead the rest of the European Union in terms of developing highly flexible labour markets. But the real winners, Werner Korte suggested, might be the next four countries, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands, who were proceeding somewhat more cautiously. "This could be an occasion when it is better to have the silver medal rather than the gold medal," he said.

Another telework specialist Ursula Huws drew attention to the increasing migration of work both within countries and internationally, including the development of what she called ‘e-outsourcing’ and the growing use of freelance workers. Regions of Europe had new opportunities to benefit from these trends but also faced the threat of being stereotyped as low-skill, low-cost areas, she said. There is a pressing need to ensure common standards of social protection and to avoid a global race to the bottom, she added.

Telework 2001 heard accounts of development of telework in several of the countries applying to join the European Union. In Hungary, for example, telework (‘távmunka’ in Hungarian) has been adopted by several large companies, including the telecoms company Matáv where currently eighty employees are teleworking. Just across the water from Helsinki, Estonia is already powering ahead with its own plans to develop teleworking, not least in government. For the past year, according to Taavi Valdlo of the Estonian Informatics Centre, cabinet ministers have been linked in to a powerful private network which holds all the documentation they need for their work, and potentially means that they do not necessarily even have to be physically present for cabinet meetings. In the process of moving towards e-government, Estonia hopes to save the expense of copying 2.5 million documents each year.

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