Teleworking in focus

Employers and employees have paid increased attention to teleworking in recent years, in Ireland as in many other EU countries, and this trend looks set to continue in the future. This feature outlines the current position and debate with regard to teleworking in Ireland, looking at its extent, the attractions for employers and employees, the government's position (including a Code of Practice issued in 2000) and trade union views and policies.

There are variations in the definition of teleworking (TN9811201S). In a broad sense, teleworking refers to any telesales staff, freelance businesses, consultants, mobile workers and technical support staff. In a narrower sense, teleworking specifically refers to people who use information and communication technologies to perform work outside of their main workplace. According to the National Advisory Council on Teleworking (NACT), "teleworking is a way of working using information and communication technologies in which work is carried out independent of location. Teleworking is not a job but a way of working. People who use teleworking include: "

  1. teleworkers - at home or in a remote office, full-time or part-time;
  2. telecommuters - part-time at home and part-time in the office; and
  3. mobile workers - on the move". "

Extent of teleworking

Due to the variations in the definition of teleworking, it is difficult to provide a precise estimate of the number of teleworkers in Ireland, but at the current juncture, approximately 60,000 people - about 3.6% of the labour force excluding unemployed people - are engaged in some form of teleworking. Between 33% and 50% of these people are estimated to be regular teleworkers. This figure looks set to increase further over the course of the next five years or so. The two main factors promoting the growth of teleworking are advances in technology and communications and the demand for more flexible working arrangements.

Teleworking is more common in certain companies, sectors and occupations than in others. Companies with more than 200 employees are most likely to have teleworking. It is particularly common in large information technology and finance companies. The occupations most amenable to teleworking are information-based jobs such as clerical and accounts work, and knowledge-based work such as software development.

The management of teleworking

Some employers have decided to introduce teleworking to ease recruitment and retention difficulties. The Irish labour market has tightened considerably in recent years, and there is increased evidence of labour and skill shortages across many sectors of the economy (IE0006152F). Teleworking may make a company seem more attractive to potential recruits, such as women with childcare responsibilities, thus making it easier to recruit people. It may also make it easier to retain people with valuable skills and so reduce turnover. In addition to the recruitment and retention benefits, teleworking may bring a number of other benefits to employers, such as increased productivity, increased motivation, lower absence, and reduced costs.

The successful management of teleworking requires regular communication and the building of trust. There is still a degree of management resistance to teleworking, however, which is largely based on a fear of relinquishing control over employees' activities. Changing traditional "command and control" attitudes and practices, which are a significant barrier to the further diffusion of teleworking, could prove to be a difficult task.

Teleworking from an employee perspective

There has been an increased demand in recent years from employees for flexible working arrangements such as teleworking, which help workers to achieve a more satisfactory "work-life balance" (IE0009155F) This is because many workers are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile the conflicting demands that exist inside and outside the workplace. Inside the workplace, the pressure to work longer hours, the need to cope with new work practices, and higher customer expectations, have placed increased stress on many workers. Outside the workplace, many people are finding it difficult to provide care for children and other dependents, to commute to work because of rising traffic congestion, and to find enough time to develop their personal lives.

Teleworking may also benefit employees by increasing job opportunities for people living in remote areas, as well as people with physical disabilities.

Government policies on teleworking

The Irish government published a Code of Practice on teleworking in 2000 in order to provide a framework for companies introducing teleworking practices and to develop an environment supportive of teleworking. It outlines a number of key issues, such as: guidelines for the selection of jobs suitable for teleworking; practical implications such as home office requirements; communication methods; and legislation affecting employees' rights and employers' obligations. There is a commitment contained in the current national agreement, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF) (IE0003149F), to promote the Code. There is also a commitment in the PPF to promote "family-friendly" policies such as teleworking.

The government has also made a commitment to introduce teleworking into various sections of public service employment in the near future.

Trade unions, collective bargaining and teleworking

The trade union view on teleworking is generally one of cautious support. There is some fear that teleworking may sometimes be used as a vehicle for "casualising" employment. Furthermore, there is a feeling that teleworking may undermine trade union organisation where workers are no longer part of a single employment unit, but are widely dispersed. Despite these fears, the unions support teleworking "where it is being used to facilitate people staying in the workforce", because of issues such as family commitments, a disability or problems with commuting.

Company-level collective agreements incorporating teleworking issues are very rare, although a number of trade unions have developed a set of guidelines to be used for negotiating teleworking arrangements with employers. The Manufacturing, Science, Finance (MSF) union has established the following guidelines:

  • teleworking should be voluntary, with home workers having employee status rather than self-employed status;
  • teleworkers should have the opportunity to contact each other and non-teleworking colleagues;
  • all equipment should be provided and maintained by employers, and additional costs should be funded;
  • transfers to teleworking should be for a trial period and be subject to an annual review. There should be a right to revert back to the previous arrangement; and
  • a separate room should be used for teleworking which could also be inspected by health and safety advisors.

The Communication Workers' Union (CWU) has also targeted the needs of teleworkers by compiling a set of guidelines for equitable treatment and establishing a "virtual branch" to recruit teleworkers into the union. Membership of this "virtual branch" is open to teleworkers (whether employees or self-employed), and anyone in the communications, online, distribution and computer industries. The guidelines set out a number of principles that should be followed by employers when employing teleworkers:

  • nobody should be forced into self-employment through teleworking;
  • teleworkers should be able to attend the workplace to avoid isolation;
  • teleworkers should have a separate room in their home, should be paid additional costs for items such as fuel and stationery, and all computer equipment should be provided by the employer, which should also accept legal responsibility for any injuries sustained in the workplace during working hours;
  • teleworkers should have the same pay and conditions, childcare, family leave, training opportunities and career development, as office-based workers; and
  • teleworkers should enjoy the same trade union rights as other workers and union representatives and health and safety advisors should be free to visit them.

Teleworking at Agilent/Hewlett Packard

A case study of a company using teleworking is provided by the Agilent/Hewlett Packard information technology equipment firm, where teleworking is a central component of work practices.

While teleworking is encouraged at the company, it is not compulsory. By 1999, all of the company's Irish sales and support team was home-based and 50% of its overall staff (120) had taken up teleworking. The company pays for all the equipment that is required to set up a home office. There is regular communication between management and employees, and the operation of the system is said to be based on a relationship of trust. The company operates a system of performance measurement, whereby each year a number of performance objectives and targets are agreed between employees and management. Teleworking is reported to have brought mutual gains for employer and employees. From an employer perspective, it has produced cost savings and there has been an increase in staff retention. From an employee perspective, it has generated improvements in the "work-life balance", provided opportunities for people with disabilities, and reduced the requirement to live close to the workplace.

Commentary

Advances in technology and the demand for flexible working arrangements have promoted an increase in the utilisation of teleworking in Ireland in recent years. This trend looks set to continue in the current context of a tightening labour market. In this climate, some employers are finding it necessary to introduce policies such as teleworking to recruit and retain labour, which, in many cases, has become a scarce and valuable resource. For their part, employees often value teleworking because it as a means of achieving a more satisfactory "work-life balance". The evidence suggests that, where teleworking has been introduced, it can potentially generate "mutual gains" for employers and employees. The building of trust is essential for the successful operation of teleworking. However, the continued existence of traditional "command and control" attitudes and practices may prove to be a significant barrier to the further diffusion of teleworking. (Tony Dobbins, CEROP, UCD)

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