Australia Needs Home-Based Employment

| December 19, 2008

The idea of home-based employment has truly come of age.

Technology has evolved to a point where much of the work currently done in centralised office blocks can now be done at home. However, much of the benefit of a remote workplace is not being realised. Rural communities are starved of people who move to evermore bloated cities. Society is reluctant to move away from an economic and social model that is now, more than ever, just an anachronism.

Home-based employment has the power to change Australian society for the better. Not only does it benefit people whose work adapts to a remote work setting, but it has flow on effects that yield positive consequences to remote communities and large cities alike.

The idea of home-based employment has truly come of age. We have sophisticated means of transmitting information quickly and securely to one or billions of people in an instant. This technology makes the office block basically redundant. Let’s capitalise on this technology when, in the face of continuing development, the remote workplace will only become more achievable and sensible.

Why have we lacked vigour in pursuit of working remotely? Some excuses often cited are listed here.

  • Lack of technology

    Most people in urban centres can be provided with what is necessary to work from home. As technology continues to evolve, broadband availability will improve, and its spread will increase to include geographies with greater physical isolation. Many people currently have the ability to work from home, and any current limits on technology do not inhibit workplace reform.

  • Too many risks to occupational health and safety

    An employee would primarily manage their own workplace. A biannual inspection may be conducted by the employer to cover any mandatory workplace requirements. Laws can and must be changed to cater for home-based employment.

  • Social isolation

    Technology cannot replace all types of interaction, but it can remove the perception that co-location is necessary to be productive. Today, people commonly keep in contact via email, real-time chat, telephone and even conference calls which may be aided visually. Tools exist where a remote employee’s computer desktop is available to a colleague’s as if the desktop were the colleague’s own. These communication tools supplant the office environment, and they do this without the necessity of having to deal with interruptions, or travel time and expense.

  • Inequitable treatment of employees and setting of unmanageable precedents

    The only reasonable arguments to prohibit or restrict home-based employment should be ones that demonstrate a contradiction between the requirements of the role and this style of work. These arguments would remove any basis for inequitable treatment, and would reinforce a particular employee’s right to work in a way that suits them, without interfering with their ability to do their job.

  • Management cannot measure productivity

    Employment-from-home arrangements would fit roles where physical cooperation and physical supervision are rare – satisfying a significant proportion of occupations. Productivity in such jobs is measured by the employee’s output, and not by the amount of time an employee spends at a particular task.

  • Security threats

    Methods of preventing, auditing, and detecting intrusion in data systems have existed in a mature state for many years. Strong security mechanisms are widely available and integrated with most software packages available today. Again, technological evolution will inevitably improve an already strong data security arsenal.

These, and numerous other points are often raised as a series of obstacles, real or imaginary, to avoid dealing with a fear of change.

To summarise some of the arguments for home-based employment, this work style would certainly contribute to helping:

  • reduce the burden of overpopulation in large cities.

  • provide for the sustainability of remote, and rural communities..

  • mitigate the need to concentrate natural resources (water etc.) where population is concentrated.

  • minimise the sense of transient detachment that individuals who aren’t disposed to a transient lifestyle feel, in turn fostering a greater sense of community in large cities, regional, and rural communities alike.

  • remove stress for individuals who may find it difficult commuting, or deciding whether it is better to move permanently or give up pursuing a career that takes them away from their homes.

  • improve air quality, and reduce noise and other forms of intrusive pollution in large cities.

  • mediate the strain put on city infrastructure, reducing maintenance costs in large cities.

  • increase living standards and service provision to rural and remote communities.

  • remove the location or travel dependence of work to only those jobs which location or travel is an important factor.

  • contain the cost of living in large cities because of the reduced need to move to them to find work.

  • make doing business in large cities less expensive because of the reduced need to provide office space for co-located employees.

  • retain and grow skilled expertise in sectors like IT, and remain competitive with other countries like India and China in these sectors.

  • produce a social structure that, because the population would tend to become more distributed, would aid resilience in the face of disaster.

This article is written to encourage debate on the issue of home-based employment. The list is certainly not exhaustive, nor have each of the arguments been fully elaborated, they are left open for debate.

Some employees practise some variation of home and office-based work. These arrangements are often:

  • ad-hoc and informal,

  • never held in the long-term,

  • revoked on a management whim,

  • open to be used as a means of management coercion.

A more practical approach to management should be considered: one which aims to minimise co-location as a management tool – a tool that should only be used in situations where the concept of remote management contradicts the requirements of a job.

Australia is a capitalist democracy. Most employees hold jobs in the private sector. How can home-based employment schemes be justified to private, profit driven organisations? Home-based employment needs to benefit the bottom line. There are several areas in which this may be demonstrated, including reductions in:

  • expenses involved in providing office space for home-based employees,

  • absenteeism rates that are generally higher for commuting employees,

  • turnover rates that are generally higher for commuting employees.

In terms of business growth opportunities, home-based employment will help here also. Home-based employees who live in disparate communities are earning the same money as their city-based colleagues. They are able to spend this money in, and bring services to their home community. Increased money in a remote community presents opportunities for business investment.

Only small, flexible, and innovative businesses might initially try this work style on their own. Without legislative support and a greater body of evidence, remote work may be hard to achieve, sustain and may not provide larger business with enough incentive. Something else needs to be done in order to help advance home-based employment. The federal, state, and local government need to legislate where necessary, and public service organisations need to offer this work style to their employees. They can seriously trial how well remote work fits with particular occupations, yielding data that would justify the benefit of home-based employment.

Jobs that do not involve on-site maintenance, jobs that have no physical security or emergency function, have no field-work research or specific laboratory-based work, or are not customer facing (i.e., counter staff), are all very suitable for this type of work. Jobs that are especially suited include, but may not be limited to:

  • research and data mining activities,

  • management and supervision,

  • non-hardware based back-office administration,

  • design/drafting/modelling,

  • accounting/auditing,

  • call centre operations,

  • authoring and journalism.

Voters will accept government money going to schemes when they see that these schemes appear to bring benefit their choices. The government needs to emphasise equal necessity in changing the landscape of the workplace as justification for advancing access to communications technology to remote communities. I believe the electorate would respond positively to such an initiative.

The true benefits of communications technology have hardly been returned to the society at large. It is time now, more than ever, that Australians focus on what communications technology can do to bring positive outcomes for their lives.

Owen Thomas is a man of leisure who likes to sleep, to run (a bit), and who is attempting to produce a new technology that will, amongst a number of other things, rescue the teamwork baby from the bathwater of collocation. He also has a B.CompSc from the University of Wollongong, and is currently undertaking postgraduate study from the same university.