Telework

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Karolus Kraan, Merle Blok, TNO, the Netherlands


Introduction

This article gives definitions of teleworking, presents facts about the prevalence of teleworking in Europe, and addresses the relationships that have been reported to exist between teleworking and productivity and well-being. Special attention is paid to psychosocial factors that moderate this relationship. Frequently addressed topics in relation to telework will be discussed, such as the effect on job satisfaction, work-life balance ( healthy work-life balance), and the psychosocial effects of ergonomic and environmental working conditions. Finally, this article highlights the European Framework Agreement on Telework of 2006 by the European social partners.

Definition

Telework can generally be defined as a new way of working, with employees performing work activities which previously were usually carried out at a central work location (office), but which are now carried out remotely from the employer or contractor. Moreover, the work activities require the use of information and communication technology (ICT) [1]. At the EU level in 2002, the European social partners signed a Framework agreement on telework (extensively elaborated in section 6). Within the Framework, telework and its scope are defined as: “a form of organising and/or performing work, using information technology, in the context of an employment contract/relationship, where work, which could also be performed at the employer’s premises, is carried out away from those premises on a regular basis. The agreement covers teleworkers. A teleworker is any person carrying out telework as defined above”.

Nilles [2] was the first author who used the term ‘telecommuting’, long before the mobile phone, laptop computers and wireless internet were commonly used in work. However, an exact definition of teleworking, with a clear description of the frequency and average duration of working remotely, is still lacking. There are several different definitions. There is some confusion since teleworking is also referred to as ‘telecommuting’ or ‘remote work’ and sometimes even ‘distributed work’. Home-working is sometimes also seen as a form of teleworking. These concepts all refer to work arrangements in which employees do not commute to a central place of work, but work at an alternative worksite for any part of their regular or paid hours. There are some differences between the arrangements. Where teleworking refers to all types of technology-assisted work conducted outside of a central work location (office), telecommuting refers to the benefit of reducing travel time from home to the central work location. Distributed work refers to arrangements that allow employees and their tasks to be shared across settings away from a central place of business or organisational location [3].

What all of these decentralised work arrangements have in common is that they can provide workers with more flexibility and control with regard to where they perform a task. During the industrial revolution employees were bound to their work station in order to be able to perform a certain task. In recent decades, European countries and Western society in general have changed from an industrial based way of working towards a more information based working (especially in service sectors). This, in combination with new technological possibilities, has made it possible for firms to unbind time and tasks from locations. Those who embrace or introduce teleworking, often have high expectations. On the one hand, they aim to increase flexibility and workers’ control opportunities on aspects such as working time and place of work in order to create more productive employees with higher job satisfaction. On the other hand, these proponents of telework aim to reduce operating costs by reducing the required number of square meters of office buildings [4]. Besides, telework is promoted as a means to reduce air pollution by decreasing commuter traffic, while also contributing to solving mobility problems.

Prevalence of teleworking in Europe

Reliable, recent figures on the prevalence of teleworking in the European Union (EU) are scarce. However, in a special module in a survey among enterprises (with 10 persons or more, but without the financial sector) in 31 European countries in 2012, the statistical office of the European Union (Eurostat) incorporated indicators on whether or not an enterprise provides mobile connections to its employees [5]. These indicators may be seen as a relevant proxy indicator on the organisations’ policy to allow employees to work remotely, including teleworking. The devices assessed by the indicators, can also be seen as enabling advanced forms of teleworking, i.e. mobile work using portable devices. At least, these proxies can be assumed to correspond with the ‘ranking’ of countries with regard to telework prevalence. Two of these indicators are presented here. These involve: 1) provision to the persons employed of portable devices that allow a mobile connection to the internet for business use to access the enterprise’s email system, and the - even more advanced - indicator 2) enterprises giving portable devices for business use to access and modify documents of the enterprise. The percentages per indicator are shown for the EU27 overall, for each Member State, and for four other European countries (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1 shows the percentages on the first indicator. (Two candidate countries were also included in the Eurostat sample of 2012: Croatia (HR), and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (MK). Other, non-EU countries in the Eurostat sample of 2012 were Norway (NO) and Iceland (IS)).

As Figure 1 shows, 42% of the enterprises in the EU27 provide their employed persons portable devices that allow a mobile connection to the Internet for business use to access the enterprise's email system. In Finland, even 73% (three out four enterprises) do so, while in the other Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden) as well as in the Czech Republic, there are also high shares of enterprises providing such e-mail functionality. This involves approximately 60% of the enterprises in these countries. There are only small shares (less than 30%) of enterprises in Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, Romania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia providing persons employed portable devices that allow a mobile connection for such email functionality.

Figure 1: Percentage of enterprises that provide the employed persons with portable devices that allow a mobile connection to the Internet for business use to access the enterprise's email system.

Short description: portable devices with at least 3G technology for accessing the Internet, e.g. via portable computer with modem or via handset using e.g. UMTS but excluding GPRS.

Fig1percentage.PNG

Figure 2 shows that the percentages in the EU27 and in the individual countries are lower on the second, more advanced, indicator of teleworking. On average, 27% of the EU27 enterprises give portable devices for business use to access and modify documents of the enterprise. The ranking of the countries in this respect is almost similar to the one presented in Figure 1. Iceland and Finland score highest (56% and 55% respectively), followed by Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the Czech Republic (50%; 48%; 46%; 45%), whereas Lithuania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia rank lowest in this respect. Here, less than 20% of the enterprises give employees portable devices for business use to access and modify documents of the enterprise.

Figure 2: Percentage of enterprises giving employees portable devices for business use in order to access and modify documents of the enterprise

Fig2employees.PNG

Studies on characteristics of teleworkers and their working conditions

According to a comparative study including data from the European Working Conditions Survey 2005 [6], in terms of people who telework or work from home, a large number tend to work in the education sector, IT, financial or business and services sectors (e.g., real estate), where access to IT is high.

According to data from the EWCS 2005, professionals were most likely to telework at home using a PC all or almost all of the time (4.4%), followed by legislators, senior officials and managers (3.3%). Professionals were also most likely to telework at home using a PC between one quarter and three quarters of the time (14.6%), followed by legislators, senior officials and managers (12.2%). The types of employees least likely to telework at home using a PC all or almost all of the time were those in elementary occupations (0.4%), followed by plant and machine operators and assemblers (0.5%). The types of employees least likely to telework at home using a PC for between one quarter and three quarters of the time were skilled agriculture and fishery workers (0.7%), followed by plant and machine operators and assemblers (1.7%) [6].

Based on employee surveys, Statistics Netherlands (CBS), for instance, showed that teleworkers were usually highly educated people, were relatively often in a supervisory position and were working long weeks, of more than 40 hours [7]. In a large recent Dutch study [8], based on four editions of the large-scale National Working Conditions Survey (NWCS) with a representative response of over 22,000 workers per year [9], teleworkers were relatively often highly educated, men, married or cohabiting with children and living relatively far away from their work, compared to non-teleworkers. Also, teleworkers turned out to be relatively often placed in a supervisory position.

Teleworkers worked more overtime and were (of course) often working with a computer. Regarding their working conditions, teleworkers experienced many degrees of freedom (autonomy) in their work and a lot of task variety. Moreover, they found their managers supportive. However, teleworkers also faced a high workload.

Sectors in which telework is particularly common, are the financial and commercial services, education and the public sector. Sub-sectors that stand out, are the ICT sector, of course, followed by the higher education sector. In sectors such as manufacturing, construction, healthcare, transport, catering and agriculture, teleworking is a relatively marginal activity [8]. Such differences, of course, are partly to do with the type of work that is more or less suitable for telework.

Associations between teleworking, employee well-being and psychosocial moderators

It is often assumed that employees who have the possibility of teleworking, will experience a greater flexibility in the way they work with colleagues, experience more balance in their personal work situation and increased flexibility in working time [10]. However, working away from the office can also change the contact between colleagues and between employees and firms, which can result in loss of corporate affiliation. At the management level, this causes new challenges for the way managers evaluate performance and supervise employees [11] [12]. The literature also indicates the risks of telework, such as an increase of work-related stress as a result of bad workplace ergonomics in the place where work is carried out, and the loss of work boundaries. To date, little research has been conducted into the effects of teleworking on employees’ well-being [13]. There is little understanding on the question whether teleworking constitutes an emerging risk for workers or firms, and under which circumstances. Due to the difference in definitions of teleworking in research studies, making a comparison of results is difficult. For instance, the threshold for telework frequency in which the organisation will identify someone as a teleworker, differs between studies and there are many assumptions about teleworkers and the practice of telework which influences the results [11].

Working conditions and related health, well-being and performance outcomes

Research showed heterogeneity with regard to where exactly a teleworker is performing work, which makes it impossible to generally address the effect of teleworking on ergonomic and environmental working conditions. The ways in which the teleworker has been given ICT equipment, such as a laptop computer and mobile phone, often remain unknown. This is in line with the research suggestion that the effect of teleworking on productivity and workers’ health should not be studied alone, but in interaction with implementation aspects such as proper ICT resources and the role of the manager [14].

There are, however, some review studies on the effects of telework (‘telecommuting’) on workers’ health, well-being and productivity [1] [11]. These studies found no strong convincing support for an effect of teleworking on productivity. Positive findings were mainly based on self-report measures, with the employees reporting about their own performance. Results that were found, suggest that telecommuting is likely to be more good than bad for individuals. As one large review study concludes [1], telecommuting had small but mainly beneficial effects on proximal outcomes, such as perceived autonomy and (lower) work–family conflicts. Importantly, telecommuting had no generally detrimental effects on the quality of workplace relationships. Telecommuting was also shown to have beneficial effects on other, more distal outcomes, such as job satisfaction, performance, turnover intent, and role stress. These beneficial consequences appeared to be at least partially mediated by perceived autonomy.

Clear, unambiguous support for the effect of teleworking on health outcomes, such as sickness-absence and well-being, is still lacking [15]. A recent study [16], however, showed that telework decreased sickness absence, both among ‘average’ employees and among employees with a work handicap. In another recent study, access to teleworking predicted higher dedication to the job (being a dimension of work engagement) at follow-up (1 year later). The working condition ‘management by targets/output results’ moderated the effects of teleworking on dedication: the combination of access to teleworking and output management was found to have a positive effect. Importantly, when management by output did not coincide with access to teleworking, employees experienced less dedication [17].

Furthermore, there is some consistent support for the effect of teleworking on job satisfaction. A curvilinear (inverted U) relationship has been reported between the extent of teleworking and job satisfaction. This led to the suggestion that firms should try to find the right balance with respect to extent of telecommuting [10].

Work-life balance

For instance, in 2007, a meta-study found that high-intensity telecommuting (more than 2.5 days a week) accentuated telecommuting’s beneficial effects on work-family conflict but harmed relationships with coworkers [1].Telework can be instrumental to reach work-related goals. Generally, it provides employees with more flexibility to perform work roles and more opportunities to adapt working time and location the one’s personal situation. Also, time spent on travelling is reduced, which can lower work stress, travel stress and work-life conflict [18] [19] [20].

Due to new technological possibilities such as mobile phones and fast connectivity to business information, telework has rapidly changed in the last decade (Mobile IT-supported work – a challenge for OSH and human factors). This new way of teleworking may increase family-based interruptions and distraction from work. Teleworkers often experience greater pressure and expectations related to accessibility and availability for work from their employer and also from their colleagues.

Nevertheless, telecommuting did not show straightforward damaging effects on the quality of workplace relationships or perceived career prospects [1]. Researchers suggest that it is of great importance to take into account adoption time, and that the place teleworking is carried out is important. Teleworking programmes are not necessarily ‘one size fits all’, and firms should differentiate in their job design by looking into the characteristics of their workers and the job tasks that need to be performed [21].

European Framework Agreement on Telework

At EU level in 2002, the European social partners ETUC (and the liaison committee Eurocadres-CEC), UNICE, UEAPME and CEEP signed a framework agreement on telework [22]. As indicated above, the definition of telework and its scope in the Framework are: “Telework is a form of organising and/or performing work, using information technology, in the context of an employment contract/ relationship, where work, which could also be performed at the employer’s premises, is carried out away from those premises on a regular basis. This agreement covers teleworkers. A teleworker is any person carrying out telework as defined above.” The report by the European Social Partners on the ‘Implementation of the European Framework Agreement on Telework´ states that the European social partners chose for the first time to implement their European framework agreement by their own means ‘in accordance with the national procedures and practices specific to management and labour’. The agreement recalls that teleworkers enjoy the general protection afforded to employees. Hence, the intention was to define a general framework for the use of telework in such a way as to meet the needs of employers and workers. The agreement identifies the key areas requiring adaptation or particular attention when people work away from the employer’s premises, for instance data protection, privacy, health and safety, organisation of work, training, etc. At a national level, members of the signatory parties agreed on the instruments and procedures for implementation. They also disseminated, explained and transposed the European text in their national contexts between 2002 and 2006. Relevant OSH themes covered in the Framework include the following – presented here in a slightly summarised form [22].

Voluntary character

Telework is voluntary for the worker and the employer concerned. Teleworking may be required as part of a worker's initial job description or it may be engaged in as a voluntary arrangement subsequently. In both cases, the employer provides the teleworker with relevant written information in accordance with directive 91/533/EEC, including information on applicable collective agreements, a description of the work to be performed, etc. The specificities of telework normally require additional written information on matters such as the department of the undertaking to which the teleworker is attached, his/her immediate superior or other persons to whom she or he can address questions of professional or personal nature, reporting arrangements, etc.

Employment status

The passage to telework as such, because it only modifies the way in which work is performed, does not affect the teleworker's employment status. A worker’s refusal to opt for telework is not, as such, a reason for terminating the employment relationship or changing the terms and conditions of employment of that worker. If telework is not part of the initial job description, the decision to pass to telework is reversible by individual and/or collective agreement. The reversibility could imply returning to work at the employer's premises at the worker's or at the employer's request.

Employment conditions

Regarding employment conditions, teleworkers benefit from the same rights, guaranteed by applicable legislation and collective agreements, as comparable workers at the employer's premises. However, in order to take into account the particularities of telework, specific complementary collective and/or individual agreements may be necessary.

Privacy

The employer respects the privacy of the teleworker. If any kind of monitoring system is put in place, it needs to be proportionate to the objective and introduced in accordance with Directive 90/270 on visual display units.

Work equipment

All questions concerning work equipment, liability and costs are clearly defined before starting telework. As a general rule, the employer is responsible for providing, installing and maintaining the equipment necessary for regular telework unless the teleworker uses his/her own equipment.

If telework is performed on a regular basis, the employer compensates for or covers the costs directly caused by the work, in particular those relating to communication. The employer provides the teleworker with an appropriate technical support facility.

Occupational health and safety

The employer is responsible for the protection of the occupational health and safety of the teleworker in accordance with Directive 89/391 and relevant daughter directives, national legislation and collective agreements. The employer informs the teleworker of the company's policy on occupational health and safety, in particular requirements on visual display units. The teleworker applies these safety policies correctly.

In order to verify that the applicable health and safety provisions are correctly applied, the employer, workers' representatives and/or relevant authorities have access to the place where teleworking is being carried out, within the limits of national legislation and collective agreements. If the teleworker is working at home, such access is subject to prior notification and his/her agreement. The teleworker is entitled to request inspection visits.

Organisation of work

Within the framework of applicable legislation, collective agreements and company rules, the teleworker manages the organisation of his/her working time. The workload and performance standards of the teleworker are equivalent to those of comparable workers at the employers premises. The employer ensures that measures are taken preventing the teleworker from being isolated from the rest of the working community in the company, such as by giving him/her the opportunity to meet with colleagues on a regular basis and access to company information.

Training

Teleworkers have the same access to training and career development opportunities as comparable workers at the employer's premises and are subject to the same appraisal policies as these other workers. Teleworkers receive appropriate training targeted at the technical equipment at their disposal and at the characteristics of this form of work organisation. The teleworker's supervisor and his/her direct colleagues may also need training for this form of work and its management.

Collective rights

Teleworkers have the same collective rights as workers at the employer's premises. No obstacles are placed in the way of communicating with workers’ representatives. The same conditions for participating in and standing for elections to bodies representing workers or providing worker representation apply to them. Teleworkers are included in calculations for determining thresholds for bodies with worker representation in accordance with European and national law, collective agreements or practices. The establishment to which the teleworker will be attached for the purpose of exercising his/her collective rights is specified from the outset. Worker representatives are informed and consulted on the introduction of telework in accordance with European and national legislations, collective agreements and practices.

At a national level, members of the signatory parties agreed on the instruments and procedures for implementation. They also disseminated, explained and transposed the European text in their national contexts between 2002 and 2006 [17]. This final joint implementation report describes many initiatives which have enabled the agreement to be implemented in European countries.


References

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  9. Koppes, L., de Vroome, E. , Mol, M., Janssen, B., van den Bossche, S., Nationale Enquête Arbeidsomstandigheden 2010; methodologie en globale resultaten, Hoofddorp, TNO Arbeid, 2011
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  18. Baltes, B.B., Briggs, T.E., Huff, J.W., Wright, J.A., Neuman, G.A., ‘Flexible and compressed workweek schedules: A meta-analysis of their effects on work-related criteria’, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 84(4), 1999, pp. 496–513
  19. Grzywacz, J.G., Carlson, D.S., Shulkin, S., ‘Schedule flexibility and stress: Linking formal flexible arrangements and perceived flexibility to employee health’, Community, Work & Family, Vol. 11(2), 2008, pp. 199–214
  20. Thomas, L.T., Ganster, D.C., ‘Impact of family-supportive work variables on work-family conflict and strain: A control perspective’, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 80(1), 1995, pp. 6–15
  21. Kossek, E.E., Lautsch, B.A., Eaton, S.C., ‘Telecommuting, control, and boundary management: Correlates of policy use and practice, job control, and work-family effectiveness’, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Vol. 68, 2006, pp. 347–67
  22. 22.0 22.1 European Social Partners, ‘Implementation of the European Framework Agreement on Telework, Report by the European Social Partners; adopted by the Social Dialogue Committee on 28 June 2006’. Available at: [4]


Links for further reading

Broughton, A., Place of work and working conditions, 2007, Available at: [5]

Welz, C., Wolf, F., Telework in the European Union, 2010, Available at: [6]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Risk assessment for Teleworkers, E-facts 33, Available at: [7]