A recent study conducted by YouGov and researcher docent Torbjörn Lundqvist at Institutet för framtidsstudier (Institute for Future Studies) shows that, in spite of the development concerning information technology, teleworking continues to stay at a low level in Sweden. The main reasons seem to be managers lack in trust, especially in female employees, and a conservative workplace culture based upon visual control.
Contrary to predictions made already 20 years ago, a very small percentage of today’s workforce are teleworkers. In the studies I made in the late 90ies, lack of efficient technology still seemed to be a hindrance, on top of traditions and conservative workplace organisations. Today, with all necessary information technology available to reasonably low costs, we know that it was never a question of technology. According to a Swedish study, the amount of teleworking or distributed work still remains low. A lot of factors seem to get in the way: suspicious bosses, jealous colleagues, homes without peace and quiet (and perhaps open designs), lack of fantasy and flexibility, no trust in one’s own ability to stay focused, gender-biased prejudice etc. For an academic, the opportunity to share work-time between home and department is self-evident since ages. New information technology just makes it easier and, hopefully, more efficient. Academic work builds upon personal responsibility. It is always the results – research or teaching – that counts. This kind of trust in the employees’ ability still seems to be lacking in the corporate world.
Obviously, today’s workplace cultures are built up around a strong definition of the place of work as central for cooperation and productivity. For others than one person consultant firms, teleworking seems to disturb an aimed at face-to-face spatiality. Bosses rely on the illusion of visual control: They are satisfied as long as their employees are present and (appearing to) doing their work.
However, teleworking could be used to enhance flexibility, e.g. allowing workers to begin their days with a couple of hours at home, then going to work after the rush-hour. Rules can be made about hours of mandatory presence and availability for informal and formal meetings.
The gender bias concerning managers’ willingness allowing men and women work outside the workplace is interesting. Are women to a larger degree suspected to letting children and home getting in the way of paid work? Just like in so many other contexts, the winner is a white middle aged middle class man (like me).
The study concludes that teleworking is not for everybody. Lots of jobs still demand the physical presence of workers, especially within the low-wage service branch, within industrial, construction, transportation and maintenance work etc.
The futuristic expectations of the early 90ies still are waiting to be fulfilled. But why should we work more from home or from other places outside the workplace? One practical reason is more daily life flexibility. Another is to diminish commuting or spreading the travels to work to non rush-hours. A third is that today’s open offices do not function well for tasks that requires concentration and quiet. Still the conventional workplace offers a safe haven for work, socially and culturally, with set expectations and codes of conduct. We can talk about the power of place here: the workplace embodies well established networks of relations between people, artefacts and built structures. The conventional workplace is hard to beat.