Telecommuting as workforce alternative

10/31/2013
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Mobile workers improve production, save money
TOKYO (majirox news) — They are called telecommuters. They set up their laptops and other mobile devices at cafés such as Starbucks, in serviced offices or at home.

Advances in technology, such as video- and tele-conferencing, smartphones and tablets, are cutting the ties between people and offices – and letting them work almost anywhere, any time. An increasing number of companies have done away with assigned desks, encouraging their employees to telecommute.

In fact, a Reuters poll finds that approximately one in five workers around the globe telecommutes. The International Data Corporation (IDC) puts the number of mobile workers worldwide at an even higher 30%, or 1.3 billion people. The IDC figure for Japan is 21.2% of the total workforce, or 13.9 million mobile workers – and growing.

Financial services giant State Street, with 29,000 employees in 26 countries managing $2.1 trillion in assets, found that 67% of its workers wanted a more flexible work schedule.

“We have a global strategy for ‘flex’ with a local approach,” says Michael Scannell, senior vice-president of global human resources at State Street. “We work with local management teams and human resources departments in each region, implementing the best programme for that area.”

Scannell describes five standard types of flexible working. There is flextime (altering the daily start/finish time); compressed schedules; flex place (routinely working away from assigned office, working from home or a remote location); reduced hours; and job shares.

“Through employee engagement surveys, we’ve learned clearly from our employees that this is very important to them,” he says. Reduced travel, teleconferences and virtual meetings with videoconferences for staff meetings save money. State Street found that telecommuting led to better business results and higher employee satisfaction.

It is much the same for Boehringer Ingelheim, a German pharmaceuticals company with 140 affiliates and more than 46,000 employees worldwide.

“On any given day, approximately 20% of the workforce [of 3,500] at Ridgefield, Connecticut [US] works remotely,” says Tetsuya Owari, a spokesman for the company in Japan. “The balance between work and private life is not only important to our employees, but is also a key driver of our overall success.”

For entrepreneurs and smaller businesses, especially start-ups, the serviced offices may be the best solution, says John Morris, owner and president of Strategic Consulting Japan.

“In Japan, stand-alone commercial real estate requires a 10-month deposit, which is not viable for small businesses, as cash flow can be difficult, especially in the first few years,” Morris says. “Additionally, commercial real estate requires a guarantor. That’s another hurdle, unless you have a wealthy local family to back you.”

When it comes to employees operating away from the office, some managers have real concerns that such remote workers may not be as productive.

“The traditional management mentality was that unless you are working at your desk, you are not working at all, and that workers need to be monitored and physically watched,” says Laura Schmelling, business development manager at Compass Office in Tokyo. “But studies in worker productivity prove that people work best when they can vary their models, have more freedom of mobility, and opportunities to collaborate and meet face to face.”

Compass offers a large co-working lounge, called the Compass Habitat, which includes lounge seats, desk spaces, and relaxation zones for client meetings. There is a pantry stocked with fresh coffee, drinks and snacks. The lounge even has a gym and massage chairs. Compass has seen its client list grow as a direct result of this facility.

“To remain competitive, serviced offices also invest heavily in the latest IT and phone technology, so the immediate benefit from this infrastructure is huge,” says Schmelling.

According to Yukiko Harada of Regus: “Many business workers may encounter stress due to the lack of an appropriate working environment, especially at home or in cafés.” The multinational serviced office provider operates 1,411 serviced business centres, including 30 in Japan. Harada also notes that European workers are more accustomed to operating in a telecommuting environment than are their Japanese counterparts.

The Japanese government, under its IT strategy, is keen to increase the number of serviced offices, believing that telecommuting will appeal to a greater number of workers who are raising children. Employees working from home for at least one day a week accounted for 12.5% of Japan’s workforce in 2012. The government’s goal is to double it to 25%.

Telecommuting increases flexibility, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Only 9.7% of companies in Japan offered telecommuting at the end of 2011, when about 66% of women aged 25-44 had jobs. The government wants to see 73% of that group employed. It also wants to have at least 55% of working women keeping their jobs after their first child.

The ministry is aware that cheap and reliable broadband throughout Japan, as well as increased IT awareness among the population, are needed to spur this growth.

The government plans to collaborate with industry to establish a telecommuting business model by 2016, and to set up guidelines that will help nearly 20% of registered
disabled individuals to work by telecommuting.

Lifeness, specialising in telework recruiting, last year partnered with major Japanese human resources firm Intelligence to launch a new service for the disabled.

“We renovate offices and homes to allow people with disabilities to telecommute from these locations,” says Ryouichi Kisaka, a director at Lifeness. “This will reduce the cost and time required for them to work in company offices.”

For working mothers, home telecommuting solves the problem of caring for sick children and eliminates long rush hour commutes.

Telecommuting can also have a downside.

“Sometimes we work at home for months without loneliness becoming an issue,” wrote entrepreneur Brooke Simmons. “Then all of a sudden, one day, you’ve realised that you might be going crackers, or that you have been living in your pajamas, or you miss that co-worker drama. At least there was someone to talk to.”

Telecommuting might be more productive because you don’t waste time chitchatting with co-workers, but gossip, brainstorming and information sharing serves the purpose of building relationships. Informal after-hours gatherings can also be important.

Employers have to consider security as well. If the electronic links between the employee and the company are not secure, a hacker could pick up valuable corporate information. VPNs (virtual private networks) go some way towards mitigating this threat. Yet, workers carelessly discarding confidential documents at home also pose a risk. Strict rules must be drawn up to prevent such breaches.

If working at home doesn’t appeal, there’s always the local Starbucks, one of the first coffee shops to make available free WiFi. Some regard as risky the open WiFi networks of such establishments, but many coffee shops provide decent workspaces with power sockets, space to spread papers and good lighting. There are even Starbucks coffee shops with conference rooms.

For large enterprises, especially, there will always be a place for the traditional office, and some tasks will require people to be physically in the same workspace.

Nevertheless, for many business activities, it is becoming increasingly attractive to work at home or in serviced offices – where a company can set up shop almost overnight and almost entirely eliminate the need for traditional office space.

This article also appeared in EuroBiz Magazine

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