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The following article was inspired by a text written by the author for the NECTAR programme within the European Union ACTS programme as part of a review of documents produced by the MIRTI project run by trade unions about teleworking.

Coming to grips with telework

One of the difficulties when talking about telework is knowing exactly what is happening and being able to consider that knowledge against the back-drop of the wider context. Telework crosses hitherto clear boundaries between home and work, between private and public, between work and leisure. Attempts to understand telework are made all the more difficult as teleworking generally involves scattered individuals and discrete pilot projects. In addition, there is some difficulty in separating facts from speculation, hear-say, sales talk, beliefs and dogma. The following text is the first of a series of texts exploring ideas related to teleworking.

Shift of responsibility

It might be fruitful to review telework in terms of the shift in responsibilities involved in the move to teleworking and the resulting accumulation on the part of the teleworker of tasks not directly related to the core work to be done. With teleworkers scattered around the country, such tasks as installation and maintenance of equipment, inspection of working places, health care, handling insurance, security systems, cleaning, ... may no longer be viably run on a centralised basis by the employing company from its premises. If the onus of these tasks is partly shifted to the teleworker, what is going to be the impact on the employee in terms of necessary know-how, time consumed and efficiency in working, not to mention stress? Should such a development take place, the activities of the teleworking employee will increasingly resemble those of the self-employed person.

A possible solution would consist of both employed and self-employed teleworkers making use of yet-to-be-created local services in these fields to limit time consumed by such activities. The novelty of such a system would be that these services will no longer be company-based, but defined by geographical proximity. If employed teleworkers are not to be out of pocket due to the change, a redistribution of income would be necessary to enable individual employees to contract such services. One question remains: if companies are to compensate for all the additional costs incurred by the employee in the move to telework, will they make any of the hoped-for savings?

The private space

Another important aspect of telework concerns the question of the inviolability of private space set against the background of an apparently changing definition of what is considered to be private. Much more radically than the television before it, the computer and the Internet have allowed the outside world to profoundly penetrate the private sphere. This penetration symbolically, but also quite tangibly, plays itself out within the heart of your personal computer as software developers push to have access from over the Internet to the hitherto protected and private parts of your computer for programmes like Java and Active X.

In terms of privacy, telework, especially when it is done from home, creates a dilemma for Trade Unions. On the one hand, unions seek to defend hard-won laws on the satisfactory nature of the work place. At the same time, they must necessarily protect the individual's private life from the intrusion of employers. Yet verifying working conditions in telework requires encroaching on hitherto private spaces. A similar dilemma can be seen in the difficulty caused by maintaining confidential material in a personal computer at home.

Controlling or evaluating?

One of the problems evoked by the MIRTI report on user needs and requirements in teleworking is that of control. How can management verify that work has been satisfactorily done in a teleworking context? The report points out that Trade Unions are hostile to electronic controls and that laws have be made in that direction. No clear statement is made, however, about why such electronic controls should be seen as totally undesirable. Presumably, it is considered self-evident.

Yet, beyond the form of control, it might be more appropriate to centre attention on evaluation and to ask the question: what needs to be evaluated and how this might best be done. Presence in the office at the prescribed times, for example, is generally one of the things employers wish to control. Clearly being available at certain times might be a requisite for satisfactory communication. But, apart for that, is it necessarily a guarantee that work gets done correctly? The MIRTI report refers to "management by objectives", which is put forward as a step in the right direction. However, seeing work in terms of objectives does not necessarily take into consideration the essential processes involved which often constitute the major part of work but which do not always produce clear-cut, tangible results. This is particularly the case in activities centred on the on-going development and distribution of knowledge especially when human relations are involved.

Alan McCluskey. Saint-Blaise.

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Created: November 28th, 1997 - Last up-dated: November 28th, 1997