By Nico Mulder (Entelect Delivery Manager)
Tele-working and Telecommuting are both popular thanks to technology tools that facilitate communication and collaboration. But it doesn’t necessarily mean both deliver the same results in terms of employee engagement and productivity.
Telecommuting, also known as remote work, is when work is undertaken at a different location than the head office to reduce the commuting time. Tele-working is a working arrangement where employees do not commute or travel at all. Although the terms are used interchangeably, they are in fact two very different things.
Telecommuting was first introduced in the early 1970's, when technology allowed linked satellite offices to connect to downtown mainframes through dumb terminals using telephone lines as a network bridge.
Then, in the 1980's, the continued decrease in hardware costs and increased network speed has allowed employees to use computers to connect to their offices from the convenience of their own home. These days fibre to the home enables high-speed internet to the home, thereby facilitating conference calls, videos calls, and high-speed video streaming, furthering the potential for telecommuting.
Technology undoubtedly, has enabled working from home possible as it provides a platform to deliver fluent communication and collaboration of employees, for example:
• WhatsApp - Groups
• Video Conferencing Applications
21st century digital work
From an employer's perspective, there are several benefits for a company to embrace telecommuting:
1. Real-estate. A reduction in required desk space, in some instances as much as 40% of a workforce has been known to work remotely. That is nearly 40% of your employee costs.
2. Autonomy and freedom. Giving your employees the freedom to work from their most productive space each day, and to enjoy the benefits of flexible working hours, feeds employee satisfaction and trust.
3. Saving travel time. Employees who need to commute for long hours a day can be more productive if they can save unnecessary travel time.
There are several varieties of ‘working from home’ structures:
1. Work from home on a needs basis only: For instance, when the plumber needs to fix something, you are waiting for a package to be delivered to your house, or when the kids are sick.
2. Work from home for 2-3 days of the week: A hybrid approach like this saves time on travel and commuting, but means the employee is available in the office for the other days of the week.
3. Work from home, full-time: Also known as Tele-working. In this structure, the employee is only required to be in the office for meetings when video calls or conference calls aren’t an option.
Times have changed. Tools for collaboration are in full swing
IBM used to be a big supporter of the work from home initiative. In 2009 IBM boasted that 40% of its employee base didn't have an office. IBM, as a consultancy, advised their clients that working from home was a great initiative, and that leading by example was great for marketing. But by 2015 IBM rolled back on their decision to work from home. IBM's revenue had fallen 20 quarters in a row, and although IBM wanted to imitate a Google or Apple, neither Google nor Apple supported working from home to the extent that IBM had implemented.
Similarly, Yahoo reversed it's working from home policy in 2013 after the company had to cut their workforce by 2 000 employees due to financial troubles in 2012.
Facebook’s approach was different. It focussed on driving collaboration and social engagement and so, created the world’s largest open-plan offices. While flexibility remains crucial to the modern working style, Facebook recognised that human interaction and engagement was also important in getting things done and for creative thinking.
It’s still about connecting with people
With technology available to make remote work faster, less expensive and more effective, the Facebook example shows that we don't connect with people just by being at your desk, we connect with people by talking to them. So this is where environments like the coffee machine and cafeteria work well. While technology enables virtual collaboration and communication, it is not entirely a replacement for human interaction. There are some things that we, as humans, essentially require to collaborate effectively. We call this collaborative efficiency, and its critical to effective teams.
Back in 1977, MIT professor Thomas J. Allen looked at communication patterns among scientists and engineers and found that the farther apart their desks were, the less likely they were to communicate. At the 30-meter mark, the likelihood of regular communication approached zero.
The automatic expectation has been that technology should improve communication and remove distance. But the study revealed that people use these tools to connect with people they see face-to-face as well.
Michelle Peluso, IBM, Chief Marketing Officer believes that, "There is something about a team being more powerful, more impactful, more creative, and frankly hopefully having more fun when they shoulder to shoulder."
In the working environment of today, employees are always working in teams. The lone worker has by in large fallen away. Now-days, employees in most industries, and especially in the software space, prefer to work in Agile team structures that are multi-disciplinary.
Creative problem solving, quick delivery, and the application of judgement on complex business situations requires employee interaction and sometimes, this can only be truly effective in an environment designed to support creative collaborative efficiency.
The intersection between flexible hours and team collaboration
Certainly the nature of work has changed. We will never return to a system where people all work a 9-5 day, based at the offce. But with that, companies have recognised the importance of collaboration. We can expect to see companies investing in developing intelligent working spaces that offer productive, collaborative, environments for their employees. Enabling them to jump into quick meetings, quick coffee catch-ups, and host interactive sessions for creative planning, when they are at the office.
There is the old saying...two heads are better than one. Collaborating in your teams is vital. There are smaller offices, and spaces where one can experience a quiet focused environment, but also collaborate and interact.
Equally, employees shouldn’t see offices only as a place for meetings and companies should look at how they can create creative and collaborative working environments that add value.