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Cutting the commute: the benefits of working remotely

A remote working trial in Queensland reported positive results for both staff and agencies, but pointed to some potential pitfalls.

If you have a long commute, then you’ve probably daydreamed about all the other things you could be doing in that time.

A trial gave 47 Queensland government employees the opportunity to test it out, allowing them to work one or two days a week from a hub 40 minutes north of Brisbane or another an hour south.

The results were largely positive, and prompted the Queensland government to extend further opportunities for working from local hubs, according to a paper recently published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration by Kirralie Rochelle Houghton, Marcus Foth and Greg Hearn of the Queensland University of Technology.

Both participants and their supervisors were happy with the trial across several metrics. The study also includes a discussion of which kinds of staff are best suited to work remotely.

Benefits for staff and organisations

Previous studies in the public and private sectors have highlighted a range of potential benefits of working remotely:

  • Improved recruitment success and staff retention;
  • Reduced absenteeism;
  • Increased business resilience;
  • Higher productivity from workers who are more focused as well as less stressed and tired;
  • Reduced costs by rationalising expensive CBD office space as well as utility consumption;
  • Opportunities to decentralise business operations and reaching out into new communities and markets;
  • Potential cost savings for employees including cost savings (in transport and child care), workplace flexibility and work-life balance, job satisfaction, use of preferred personal technologies, workforce participation and ability to participate to a higher level; and
  • Flexibility of domicile location.

The Queensland trial

So what did the Queensland trial find?

Commuting time

The biggest motivator by far for trial participants was being able to cut down on commuting time. It enabled participants to reduce travel by between one and four hours a day, or 70 minutes on average — time that takes its toll on wellbeing and work performance.

Most said this was the biggest benefit of the trial, and their supervisors agreed, with the results visible in their output at work. A previous study estimated that remote staff give back around 60% of the time saved on commuting, offering potentially significant benefits for the organisation.

Health

The impact on participants health was positive too, with 83% stating it made them healthier (with the remainder saying it made no difference).

“This reduces tiredness and provides a better lifestyle due to more leisure hours,” said one. Some participants reported that they had used their newfound spare time for doing extra exercise.

Family and community

Fewer parents took part in the trial than expected — 45% had dependents — with a high uptake among people in the later stages of their career, suggesting it may also be appealing as a way of easing towards a retirement plan. Parents reported they had more time with their children, not having to leave before they woke up in the morning and being able to eat dinner together, and were more able to pick them up from childcare.

Some said the extra time gave them more opportunity to help out friends and neighbours, or made them better able to engage with their local community through things like sports clubs.

Cost savings

Most participants reported saving money as a result of the trial, with even working one day a week from a hub making a difference to the household budget. The biggest saving was from the avoided commute, which cost up to $30 a day, as well as differences in things like parking, fitness, health, groceries and childcare.

Some supervisors said the organisation made savings due to retention of staff, less sick leave and reduced accommodation costs. It’s thought that employees would be less likely to take sick leave if they were able to avoid a long commute while moderately ill.

These cost savings could be undermined somewhat by the problem of paying for both the original office space and remote hub. This issue could be addressed, however, by increasing the amount of hot-desking in the main office. Three quarters of the participants said they’d be happy to hot-desk, though most commented they would probably want to be working more than one day a week remotely to make the change worthwhile.

Office environment

One of the challenges with such a set-up is working out how to accommodate people with specific needs, such as poor vision, a bad back, or two computer screens. Purchasing, storing or moving special equipment potentially adds to the cost and logistics of working remotely.

Some felt that giving people a hub space to work from was better than allowing them to work from home, as it would reduce distractions. It may just be a question of personality, however, with certain people being able to maintain productivity at home, while others find it more difficult. Some said they had had problems in the past with people working from home doing late hours and then being tired the next day.

Asked about factors affecting productivity in their CBD office, participants noted the usual open-plan office gripes, but said the only significant problem was the impact of the commute. They listed a few benefits of being in the main office:

  • Network access of internal systems;
  • Hard copy file access;
  • Supervisor access and interaction;
  • Face-to-face discussions;
  • Dual screens/computer set-up;
  • Access to resources, people and technical assistance;
  • Desk phone;
  • Being close to decision makers;
  • Spaces for confidential discussions;
  • Team energy;
  • Professional work environment;
  • Specific computer programs not available on laptop; and
  • Colleague recognition.

Participants mostly said there was nothing negatively inhibiting productivity at the remote hubs. The list of potential inhibitors in the hubs mostly centred around technology:

  • Lack of direct network access;
  • Slow computing/slow systems;
  • Inability to have face-to-face, co-present discussions;
  • Ability to connect to the printer or scanner;
  • IT support available;
  • Office opening times (does not open before 8:30 a.m.);
  • Seating;
  • Limitations of laptops.

Remote supervision

Supervision was not much of a problem in the trial, and one participant with supervisory responsibilities even commented that being away from the office prompted their staff to be more proactive about solving problems for themselves.

Communication and connection issues

Unsurprisingly, technology problems made it more difficult to get work done, as face-to-face contact was not an option while out of the office. Incomplete rollout of software caused problems for some. Training was required for some people to be able to use the available technology effectively.

A few dropped out of the trial over communication problems or disconnection from colleagues.

Who should work remotely?

Trust is a big issue with remote work. Supervisors noted that the participants in the trial were staff they trusted would get the job done. Trust was initially a problem with colleagues too, as thought participants were effectively getting the day off, though these attitudes changed over time.

According to the paper, a successful teleworker demonstrated:

  • Trustworthiness;
  • Independence;
  • Team player (in and out of office); and
  • Outcome-oriented work that is discrete and can be completed in separate parts.

Some thought it would help to have a set of guidelines for choosing who to allow to work remotely, while others believed this would only be red tape when managers could use their own judgement.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.