EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Telework in practice – a matter of control and regulation

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In 2000, the Swedish National Energy Administration (STEM) introduced teleworking on a large scale, affecting a majority of its employees. A study of the STEM experience, published in November 2001, finds that telework has become established as a 'conventional' form of work through the development of rules and regulations within the organisation, which control the work of the employees concerned.

About 200,000 people in Sweden work as employed teleworkers, in that they work one to four days per week at home, sometimes occasionally, with or without the employer's equipment, and with or without the employer's consent. The rest of the week they work at their employers' workplace, where they have their ordinary work station. Most teleworkers today are professionals with skilled jobs using information technology (IT), rather than the traditional home workers using no IT, such as women doing unskilled secretarial work, or teachers preparing lessons for the next day's work at school.

This broad picture refers to the situation of telework in Sweden as a whole. However, a recent study of the current teleworking situation at the Swedish National Energy Administration (Statens Energimyndighet, STEM) suggests a somewhat different picture. Michael Allvin, a researcher at the National Institute for Working Life (Arbetslivsinstitutet, NIWL) has examined how telework was established at STEM, where a large part of the workforce now works at home for a couple of days a week in relatively controlled forms of teleworking ('Telework: An instrument of freedom or control?', M Allvin, Work life in transition 2001:10, NIWL, Stockholm)

STEM is the central administrative authority for matters concerning the supply and use of energy. It was established as an independent authority in 1998, after having been 'hived off' from the Swedish Business Development Agency (Nutek). A year later, after a government decision in line with the current policy of relocating central authorities outside the capital, the whole authority with its 165 employees moved out to Eskilstuna, a small town 110 kilometres south-west of Stockholm.

The decision was not popular within STEM when first presented in 1998. The forthcoming transfer to a small town in the countryside was initially considered as a 'step down'. The board of STEM feared that too many staff would not come to Eskilstuna. After talks with the employees and trade unions represented at the authority, and with authorisation from the government, the board offered all employees in all categories, even new recruits, opportunities to telework from their homes (locatd in Stockholm in most cases).

Individual agreements

Following this decision, a telework policy was drawn up at STEM. A workforce survey was carried out, in order to establish which work tasks could be performed outside the office. For those employees who, it was decided, could work at home an individual agreement - and not a collective agreement - was drawn up, based on a model accepted by the trade unions concerned (Swedish unions have been promoting agreements on telework since the 1990s). STEM stated in these agreements that 'the needs of the [teleworkers'] activities are crucial for how telework is organised' and that 'the immediate superior has responsibility over the activities that should be carried out rationally'. The agreements regulate the length of time spent teleworking, while stipulating that work should be carried out at the office on two days a week. The individual agreements also provide that:

  • teleworkers should be available on the telephone during office time;
  • attendance at regular office meetings is obligatory;
  • the home workplace should be designed and adapted to work environment regulations;
  • the employer and the safety representative should have access to the home workplace; and
  • teleworking employees have a right to 'developing communication at least twice a year' with the employer.

Telework in action

Computers were installed in the homes of the employees concerned, and their home workplaces were checked for being ergonomically suitable and, if not, adjusted. In autumn 2000, 130 of STEM's 165 employees had signed individual agreement and started to telework.

In 2001, Michael Allvin of NIWL followed up this reorganisation of work at STEM through a comprehensive questionnaire to which 107 employees responded - 58 female workers and 49 male workers took part, with an average age of 47 years. There are three main categories of workers at STEM: managers; professional officials (handläggare); and administration staff. Of the respondents, 52% were officials, 21% worked in the administration and 17% held some kind of management position. The remaining 10% of respondents, not belonging to any group, characterised themselves as 'data support' workers, lawyers, information staff and researchers.

The officials are the most highly educated group in the authority, often civil engineers or with other higher education in natural sciences. In this group, the willingness to work at home was high (reported by 73% of them). However, many managers (65%) and administrative staff (85%) stated that most of their work tasks should be done at the office. As for working time, most officials (67%) believed that they could do their work at any time of the day at home with even better results than if they were working in the office. However, most managers (63%) and administrative staff (63%) considered that most of their work had to be carried out during office time.

The study found that there were good opportunities for teleworking officials and managers to make their own choices in performing their work. In spite of this, the teleworking staff worked the same working hours, in the same way and with the same results as when they worked in the office, according to the report.

Availability at work

The STEM employees were also asked about their 'availability' at work. Here there was a difference between how available they thought they were themselves and how available the rest of the staff believed that they were. Some 85% of all teleworking staff stated that they were available, in many cases even very available. However, only 38% found that their colleagues were as available as they were themselves, while 28% even considered that the other workers at STEM were very hard to gain access to.

The availability issue shows, according to Michael Allvin, a pattern within STEM that points at certain dissensions between those who work at home and those who are 'left' at the office. This dissension suggests, together with other examples, that the office-based staff (who had to be in the office most of the time) were the part of the workforce most dissatisfied when telework was established as a general work form. However, in practice the provisions of the individual agreements meant that there were strong rules on the availability of teleworkers and on obligatory weekly group meetings.

The study concludes with some reflections by the author about telework. Michael Allvin believes that the term 'telework' should no longer be applied to situations where individual workers stay at home to work whenever they like, with or without the consent of their immediate superiors. It is, he claims, primarily the regulation of home working that it is meaningful to describe as 'telework' and talk of as a specific work form. In other words, telework is home working arranged within the framework of the worker's ordinary work and structured according to the employer's instructions for this work. Telework differs from 'free working hours', a 'free' job or even a flexible job. Telework means only that the employee works at home in a regulated way without a decrease in demands for work results, availability, work environment standards etc. In this context, telework should merely be seen as a technique, or a set of different techniques, to administer a job.

Commentary

Telework in general has often been described in terms of freedom, flexibility and opportunities to make individual choices. However, the more practical the discourse of telework becomes the more it deals with definition, administration and regulation, Michael Allvin states. The study of STEM, which uses telework substantially, decisively shows – among other findings - that telework has been established as a 'conventional' form of work through the development of rules and regulations. The general purpose of these rules and regulations is to structure the performance of work and to integrate telework within the organisation as a whole.

One conclusion that could be drawn from the study is that telework should not be conceived as a deregulation of work and work organisation, but as a re-regulation. The implementation of telework signals a change towards new types of regulatory mechanisms, which are better suited to the administration and management of those working at a distance. (Annika Berg, Arbetslivsinstitutet)

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