Perhaps you may think tele-work sounds a bit old fashioned, or is a little bit passé… however according to the new publication “Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work” by the ILO (International Labour Organisation) and Eurofound, tele-work and ICT facilitated mobile work is entering a new era, and employers as well as policy makers need to understand their implication to sustain a healthy and productive workforce. 

3 generations of tele-work

As Jon explains so clearly, there have been 3 generations of tele-work so far, as the concept has evolved over the last 40 years:

  1. The first generation of the concept, which referred to working from somewhere else than the premise of the employer was referred to as tele commuting or the home-office in the 70s and the 80s, mainly in the US.
  2. Mobile office – work can be performed in many different places, at home, in cafés, at airports… (referred to as “third spaces”) but not quite  anywhere – also, this kind of work was to partly substitute work performed at the office. 
  3. We entered the 3rd generation of tele-work: the virtual office. Work can truly be performed “anytime and anywhere”, not only in your office or at home and in cafés, but literally anywhere.

Due to the cumulative effect of the technological advances and other trends affecting the world of work, we can no longer refer to this as an evolution, but rather a revolution about when and where work is performed. 

What are the implications for the future?

The fantastic study confirms the benefits and also explores the risks and drawbacks of tele-work for workers and employers. 

The key finding is: the way tele-work is structured matters a lot! Neither the positive effects, nor the negative impact is set in stone, a lot of the outcomes depend on the enabling environment, on the organisational culture, the line-manager’s support and the frequency of tele-work, as well as the quality of the places where work is performed.

There is a lot of room for improving and influencing these outcomes, which should be great news for anyone, organistaions and individuals alike, who may have had negative experiences while experimenting with tele-work. This doesn’t mean that tele-work is not for you or your company, it means the rules of engagement and the way it was organised or communicated weren’t optimal. 

Clear business benefits when done right

It is important to stress that there are differences between tele-work and tele-work. There is a range of levels and the effects it has on individual and organisational outcomes vary according to the types. The report distinguishes between the following: 

  • Home-based telework
  • High mobile T/ICTM
  • Occasional T/ICTM
  • Always at the employer's premises

There are however some benefits that are universal: 

  • Reduction in commuting time
  • More autonomy on their schedules and working time
  • Overall improved work-life balance
  • Higher productivity (less interruptions)

Big differences and extremes can be experienced based on the two key factors:  Place and Frequency/Intensity

How to do it right? 

A number of success factors need to be, and can be put in place for tele-working to succeed in delivering both the potential business benefits and also contributing to positive outcomes for employees (better overall work-life balance, improved worker well-being, productivity and engagement). 

Although quite difficult to separate and prove empirically, the cultural factors in countries and organisations are affecting the take-up and therefore also the success of tele-work and flexible work initiatives. 

Unless there is a results-based management system, as opposed to a system based on command-and-control, one that favours or encourages presenteeism, these initiatives may not yield the desired take-up or business benefits. 

A lot of the influence on outcomes lies with the individual line-managers or supervisors and the communication and systems in place to organise and deliver work measured against results, and not time spent in the office, to truly allow employees to work anytime, anywhere, without them working everytime, everywhere. 

Jon C. Messenger is Team Leader for the Working Conditions Group at the ILO, within the Conditions of Work and Equality department for the INWORK Branch. Jon is the author of many notable publications such as Offshoring and Working Conditions in Remote Work or Working Time and Workers' Preferences in Industrialized Countries: Finding the Balance.