Telework: breaking down geographic barriers and strengthening real-world communities

| November 27, 2012

Following the success of the first annual national Telework Week, Roger Dawkins highlights how flexible working hours benefit not only the worker but their employer too.

Alan Woodward, executive director of the Lifeline Foundation, is a flexible worker. Flexible work, or telework, affords him the usual advantages: he doesn’t have to live in close proximity to work (so he lives on coastal NSW); flexible work’s more convenient because he travels a lot; and, if he chooses, Alan can adjust his working hours to fit in daytime family activities. But in addition to those benefits of working in a flexible environment, flexible work hugely benefits the real-world community where Alan lives.

Alan’s background as a flexible worker

Flexible work, and the fact that Alan works remotely, breaks down the physical boundaries between Alan’s place of employment in Canberra and his home office in coastal NSW.  Flexible work affords Alan the benefit of living where he likes, not in close proximity to work, and without the hassle—and cost—of having to commute daily.

I asked Alan if his role at the Lifeline Foundation was always “flexible,” and he said no. He actually proposed it to his CEO. He was keen for his family to be able to return to living in the coastal area from which they came, and also, working flexibly suits his role. Alan’s a manager of research, so he’s not tied to the day-to-day operations of Lifeline and he’s on the road a lot.

Alan thinks that working flexibly is dependent on the role. Was it difficult, having “that conversation” (the one where he proposed working flexibly to his boss), we asked? Alan doesn’t think so. He said he’d thought it out and was confident he could propose flexible work as a viable option for his role. Lifeline has been open to flexible working arrangements where they fit the role and situation – seeing benefits as an organisation through being a forward thinking employer.

Tips for working flexibly

Alan had that conversation three years ago now, and he says working flexibly is great. But there are some tricks to making it successful. For example, Alan recommends writing a formal agreement with your employer, stipulating the conditions you both agree to (for example, OH & S and your home office). He says a designated work space is essential, and he’s a huge advocate of structuring your time at home just as you would in the office. For Alan, that means saying goodbye to his family and going into his home office at pretty much the same time each morning—when he’s not on the road.

Other tips from Alan about working flexibly include: monitoring and reviewing your agreement with your boss regularly; making a conscious effort—or extra effort—to stay in touch with colleagues; making use of technology, especially video conferencing; and regularly visiting the office in person to undertake scheduled meetings, in a similar way to the patterns of progress reviews on projects and programs would occur regardless of the remote working situation..

How to work remotely and stay in the loop

I asked Alan if he ever feels out of the loop at work, since he works remotely. He said he can understand how that could happen but it’s not the case for him. For Alan there’s a certain skill to staying in touch when you work remotely, and it’s not any harder than what you’d typically do if you worked with the same colleagues every day in an office, it’s just different. 

Along with paying a little more attention to the organisational techniques used by everyone to manage their work, such as project management and workflow structures (there’s absolutely no scope for these work practices to be loose or shabby when remote workers are involved), staying in touch in an informal or social sense involves a slightly more conscious effort, in a slightly different way.

In a social sense, Alan explains, when you work remotely you substitute “water cooler conversations” and physical networking (at lunch, in the cafe etc) for virtual versions of the same. He says it’s just as easy to stay in touch with colleagues by sending an email, exchanging banter via Skype, sharing a joke online, or using texting for quick exchanges. And the end result—bonding, networking, staying in touch—is comparable. According to Alan, working remotely doesn’t have to be a disadvantage; it just requires a more conscious effort to stay in the loop.

Flexible work isn’t just about breaking down geographic boundaries…

Alan made a really interesting point when he described the effects of working flexibly. He said it isn’t just about the benefits for him, and his employer, and for his role; he said flexible work is benefitting the real world community where he lives too.

Alan’s not the only flexible worker in his town on the coast of NSW. As an area known for its early take-up of the National Broadband Network, flexible work is on the increase—as is online university education. Flexible work is a more viable and practical option now, and it’s more attractive to the residents of his town. And the effect of more people giving flexible work a go, essentially, is that it’s keeping people in the town, especially younger folk. It also means the local economy benefits from people living and working in the town – even if their work is associated with a remote office. That’s important because as little as ten years ago young people and families weren’t staying and the population was slanted towards retirees. Now, the area’s economy is on the rise, the population mix is broader and community ties are stronger.

Alan’s story, then, goes to show how with flexible work, two seemingly paradoxical things can be achieved: on the one hand, you can work somewhere other than the office and enjoy the benefits (for you and your boss) of being a remote worker—in other words, the physical barriers of old can be torn down and you can enjoy the spoils of a massive, global village; and on the other hand, working flexibly can, at the same time, buttress the walls of real-world communities, strengthening personal ties and boosting local economies.

Roger Dawkins is the Content Manager for AIM NSW & ACT. This article is part of AIM’s recent research on managing work in a flexible environment.