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Two perspectives on teleworking

An article at the ABC last week talked up the benefits of teleworking, as reported by individual teleworkers. The article contrasts the (reported) productivity and creativity of such workers able to work without interruption as against the (apparently) widespread view that the best results come from collaboration.

Being a part-time worker myself, and having happened to be at a social event recently at which I talked to another software developer who worked with part-timers, I did some of my own reading into part-time work patterns and how to make them effective. One of the more interesting observations that I found was that the majority of academic studies on the topic focus on the experience of teleworkers rather than the experience of their co-workers (as does the ABC article). Individual teleworkers often report that they enjoy the flexibility of working from home, but their colleagues could find teleworkers’ absences frustrating. (My interlocutor in the aforementioned conversation in fact reported, without prompting, that he sometimes felt frustrated when needing input from a developer who wasn’t in at the time.)

Obviously there is some tension between being left alone to concentrate on one’s work on one hand, and being available to respond to colleagues on the other hand (and not just when teleworking). We may appreciate being free from interruptions and feel that we can be more productive while being left alone to work, but we also like to have our colleagues on hand when we want a response from them. And waiting for a response from an absent colleague can itself be a source of lost productivity.

Amongst the reading that I did, no one proposed any definitive answer to this dilemma. For software development in particular, teams with part-time and/or remote developers seem to just soldier on using the same practices as they would were everyone full-time and co-located, using teleconferencing or e-mail to replace face-to-face meetings. Scholars in other professions have made various suggestions about the amount of teleworking that might be appropriate and the communication strategies that teleworkers might use to increase their perceived presence in the office, but there’s no easy-to-describe solution that meets all needs.

In most of the places that I’ve worked, I’ve been able to work with little or no interruption most of the time, with only the occasional (and usually regular or at least pre-planned) meetings to share updates with colleagues. I also make a point of attending to e-mail only at the end of blocks of work, and using e-mail for any query that can afford to wait until it would be convenient for its recipient to answer it. For the kind of work that I do, which mostly requires concentration on a complex task, this has always seemed liked common sense and it seems to have worked well enough.

Having recently increased the proportion of my time that I work at Western Sydney University, and in a role that requires greater communication than work like software development, I expect to spend at least the month or two finding my own solution to the dilemma. I have at least two advantages compared to some teleworkers: (a) Western Sydney University has a well-established teleconferencing culture thanks to being distributed over several campuses such everyone is a teleworker to some degree; and (b) I don’t have any particular constraint on when I do most of my work, so I can schedule my time and travel around meetings and other events that require me to be present. Unfortunately with a sample size of one I won’t be able to write a paper about it, even if it’s a roaring success, but I hope to at least find a pattern that works for both me and the people I work with.

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