• Cheyanne Enciso

Teleworking might be the answer to soaring commute times

Workers are taking longer to commute to and from work, resulting in job dissatisfaction and a deterioration on work-life balance.

According to the latest results from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, workers are now spending an average of 4.5 hours a week commuting to and from work, compared to 3.7 hours in 2002.

In Perth, workers spend an average of 59 minutes a day commuting.

A poor public transport system, road congestion and urban expansion are some of the reasons being blamed for the increase in commute times.

The study also showed a correlation between a long commute and a desire to change jobs.

It found that 19% of workers with long commute times had looked for another job, compared to 15% of workers who had a shorter commute to and from work.

The HILDA survey was established in 2001 – it’s a household-based panel study that collects information about economic and personal well-being, labour market dynamics and family life.

HILDA’s been tracking 17,000 Australians each year since it started.

A study in 2010 suggested long commute times would be avoided if the workforce was allowed to work from home more.

But Professor Sharon Biermann, director of the Planning and Transport Research Centre (PATREC), says telecommuting would have to depend on the work being done and the circumstances at home.

“Not all want to and can be self-directed – managers need to change the way they set tasks and monitor progress… probably need to be more outcomes-directed rather than time-based.”

But she says there are clear benefits to working from home.

For employees, there’s less travel time, less workplace distractions and more opportunity to do home-related activities in between, such as putting a load of washing in the laundry.

On the other hand, home distractions, less opportunity for informal exchanges with colleagues, and less opportunity for building team dynamics are cited as some of the drawbacks.

She says for employers, it would mean having to manage more remotely, which would need to be organised in different ways with different communication strategies.

Professor Biermann says she still prefers coming into the office despite her three-hour commute to and from work.

“My preference is for clear physical separation between place of work and place of home.

“Work gives one interests and exposure to others who one wouldn’t necessarily become house friends with but who add a richness to life experience,” she says.

Dr Julia Richardson, a member of the New Zealand Expert Business Performance Panel, says working from home can help productivity and commitment to an organisation.

“Employees enjoy the fact that their employer trusts them to work from home and get their work done without direct supervision.”

But she says employers need to make sure they can monitor performance correctly.

“Out of sight can’t be out of mind for employees working from home.

“Another drawback can be the loss of visibility and communication. This is especially a challenge for new employees trying to become integrated with new colleagues if you only see them twice a week,” Dr Richardson says.

“Those who are asked to work all the time in the home often complain of missing out on office discussions, being overlooked for promotion, going unnoticed, and not feeling a sense of belonging.”

She says telecommuting a few days a week might be better for some people, as opposed to working from home all week.

“I, for example, try to work from home one day a week. It sure helps me to catch up on my work in an uninterrupted way. But I only have two cats at home. If I had, say an extended family and a very small house it would be quite different.”

“It’s a really complex topic and I think that one of the challenges is that some people don’t realise how complex it is, including managers and employees themselves,” Dr Richardson says.

For Jayden Moss, driving to and from work in the CBD currently takes him 1.5 hours everyday.

He says while telecommuting might work for some, it doesn’t work for his role as an accountant.

“My role requires me to deal with customers face to face… I can do some of the work at home but not a lot.”

“I like going in [to the office] because I get the opportunity to talk to many different people and my colleagues.

“If you’re working from home all the time there’s not really a reason for you to go out daily, and plus, you risk isolating yourself from your workmates,” he says.

Professor Biermann says telecommunicating “suits some types of work and employers but not the mainstream”.

“Teleworking was predicted to have major impacts but never really materialised to any great extent.

“In the same way Facebook hasn’t replaced the need for face-to-face socialising, ability to work remotely enabled by telecommunications advances has not replaced the need for face-to-face work interactions,” she says.

As for the future of telecommuting, she says the so-called “gig” economy might have an impact.

“If firms take up the concept of no longer directly and permanently employing staff, rather employing individuals for gigs as and when needed – with individuals hiring themselves out as individual enterprises – [it] may be [a] fundamental change to the way work is set up, making it easier to work at home or on your own terms,” says Professor Biermann.

*Originally posted on The Quenda