Teleworking is for towns

 

TELEWORKING people working at homed via computers connected to head office - will not be a panacea for rural unemployment, according to a £500,000 research project recently completed at UCD. It is more likely to be a way for large companies to cut office rentals than it is to replace agriculture as a rural economic driving force.

The findings suggest that teleworking will continue to be mainly an urban rather than a rural phenomenon. The three year research programme, Psychological Aspects of Teleworking in Rural and Urban Areas (PATRA) was originally intended to discover the factors that dampen or improve enthusiasm for teleworking among both employees and employers throughout Europe.

The EU funded programme was co ordinated by Barbara Doorley, a lecturer in organisational psychology in University College Dublin, and spanned six countries.

"Our respondents mostly found it a satisfactory way of working," she said. "But our research found that training people for the change involved in working from home was completely ignored. How, for example, to reduce conflict between work and family."

Of teleworkers who responded to the 35 page questionnaire, 56 per cent were male, with an average age of 38.5 years. Female teleworkers were on average some three years younger.

A surprisingly large number - 70 per cent - spent more than half their time working back in the office. Activities included computer programming, management tasks, data processing, word processing, publishing, translating and accounting.

Many early teleworkers who elected to work exclusively from home gave it up because negative, factors associated with teleworking - principally isolation and poor relationships with management and colleagues - soon outweighed positive ones. Teleworking had a bad name with managements for some time afterwards.

But some organisations, notably Digital and the Dutch Ministry of Transport, have since devised successful teleworking structures, with employees spending some time working from the office.

"We would advise that a teleworker spends a proportion of their time working from the head office, a day a week or at least a proportion of every fortnight," Dr Doorley said.

The more time rural based teleworkers spent in the office, the higher their rate of job satisfaction. City based teleworkers, on the other hand, had a job satisfaction rating in inverse proportion to the amount of time spent in the office, a reaction Dr Doorley suggests could be in resentment to commuting.

Dislike of commuting is less of a compelling reason for rural colleagues to choose teleworking. "They may welcome the need to interact with others in the office to counterbalance the solitary nature of the work."

Overall, the highest rate of job satisfaction was found among urban teleworkers. Rural, teleworkers complained of isolation and being passed over for, promotion.

"Middle management often takes the attitude, I see therefore I manage and they feel that if they cannot see the employee, how do they know if he or she is working," said Dr Doorley. "There is a need to shift the focus of management from being people centred to task centred."

Dr Doorley's research was originally conceived under the EU's Opportunities for Rural Areas programme, but it rapidly became obvious that teleworking was not going to prove a panacea for rural unemployment. Most, teleworkers identified under the programme were already full time employees, not unemployed persons who had set up a "pastoral office" with a computer and a modem.

"It's mostly in large cities," she explained. "It's a way to reduce commuting time and cut office rent bills." In Paris, Madrid and The Hague, municipal authorities are now examining teleworking as a possible solution to traffic gridlock, she said.

Forbairt will take the findings into account when it launches a report into teleworking in conjunction with Telecom Eireann and Telework Ireland, said Declan Murphy of Forbairt's international division.

"The report will encourage regular face to face meetings with remote teleworkers to reduce isolation and will emphasise the need to separate domestic and professional activities," he said.