Hong Kong has some catching up to do as an increasing number of companies adopt work-from-home practices What would you do with your time if you could eliminate the daily commute to and from work? Perhaps not surprisingly, increasing numbers of workers around the world (yes, even those in workaholic Hong Kong) are beginning to find out. The concept of teleworking, also known as 'working at home', and 'telecommuting' refers to the elimination of the daily commute by linking workers to the office through telecommunications. Driven by an increasing awareness of the need to maintain work-life balance, surveys around the world have shown that an increasing number of corporations are adopting such flexible working arrangements. Usually it involves an employee either working from their home, or from a remote location such as a coffee shop, instead of travelling to a central office location. They also use computers connected to the internet to maintain communication with their employers and to submit completed work tasks. Recently a survey of 2,700 corporations in the United States and Canada conducted by WorldatWork, a non-profit professional association based in the US, found that the proportion of companies adopting teleworking practices has grown significantly this year. It found that in the US in August, 42 per cent of organisations surveyed said they offered teleworking options to employees, up from 30 per cent a year before. In Canada, the growth was even bigger, with 40 per cent of firms allowing some form of teleworking, up from 25 per cent the year before. From a global perspective, the increasing readiness of corporations to adopt teleworking can also be explained by rising petrol prices, advanced technology, and the ability to give employees more work-life balance. Teleworking has also been linked to other organisational benefits, including better employee engagement, which leads to better performance and retention rates. It allows the employment of groups of workers who would otherwise be unable to take up permanent jobs, such as single parents with young children, and the disabled. It has also been embraced by environmental groups because it eliminates the carbon emissions produced by the vehicles of those who commute to centralised offices. Locally, despite the city's well developed telecommunications infrastructure, companies have been slow to embrace the practice. 'Hong Kong [is not] in the forefront of teleworking like the US, where it has been quite a common practice for some time,' said Barbara Chiu, general manager, Hong Kong and Macau, of Cisco Systems, a networking and communications company which builds and sells much of the hardware and software that companies use to implement telework in the workplace. However, this is not because workers don't want to work from home. In the recent 'State of Work-Life Balance in Hong Kong' survey conducted by the non-profit Community Business, one in 10 of 1,011 respondents said they believed that work-from-home arrangements would help improve their work-life balance. Teleworking was the fifth most desired measure that would help them achieve better work-life balance, out of a total of 11. According to Brenda Wilson, business leader for human capital at consulting firm Mercer, in Hong Kong, the challenge for Hong Kong is the lack of space that constrains building home offices in employees' personal domestic spaces. In Asian markets where face time is imperative, Hong Kong's businesses are slow to adapt teleworking which reduces hours inside the office. 'Anecdotally, some managers have expressed concern over whether or not teleworking can deliver results. Concerns span from feeling a loss of control in day-to-day work; mistrust in employees' ability to work from home given potential distractions; and limited ability to coach when employees are not in the office,' she said. 'Employees may be reluctant to embrace teleworking given the lack of face-to-face peer interaction.' More mature markets with a different work culture, such as the United States, have readily accepted teleworking as an effective strategy to increase staff commitment. Its success involves management trusting employees to synthesise the empowering effects of flexibility without losing productivity. 'Teleworking isn't for all roles or types of employee, but it can and does work for many,' Ms Wilson said. However, she expected that the demand for teleworking in this city would grow. 'People in Hong Kong work long hours and spend a great deal of time in the office. In fact, there are still companies that have not adopted a five-day work week. As a way forward, I believe that Hong Kong will follow the US and British trend with an increasing prevalence of teleworking, though it may be a long time before organisations fully realise the full benefits of such an initiative.' Ms Chui agreed, adding that as wireless internet access became more readily available in Hong Kong and the use of mobile internet devices continued to grow, acceptance of teleworking by corporations would increase. 'And let's not forget the intangibles, such as improved lifestyles and healthier family relationships when working at home. Simply put, happy employees are a bonus for all concerned,' Ms Wilson said. Ms Chiu said that 25 per cent of Cisco's Hong Kong staff regularly worked in various remote settings. Dubbed the 'Cisco Virtual Office', and launched in September, it allows employees working from home to communicate with their colleagues in the office through internet-based data, voice, and video chat applications that are installed on their computers at home. The only challenge the company has faced so far has been balancing network security and maintaining the convenience of employees working productively outside the office. Trust again is important between management and employees. To illustrate the benefits of the scheme, Ms Wilson said that a similar initiative implemented in the company's Singapore office had allowed it to shave up to 30 per cent from its office rent, with savings expected to reach US$5million in the next three years. Dominic Tong, general manager, IBM Hong Kong, and executive sponsor, Work-Life Integration, Greater China Group, said an adaptive workforce gave companies a competitive edge. 'To date, 40 per cent of IBM's employees are either mobile, working at dedicated client sites or working at home, [while] 73 per cent of IBM managers manage their employees on a remote basis.' IBM's remote workers use several tools ranging from e-mail and instant messaging to phone calls to maintain contact with their managers. IBM's flexible work practices had been in place globally since 1956, said Mr Tong. As technology developed over time, IBM adopted it naturally to help create a mobile workforce - with a push in 1995 accompanying the accepted use of notebook computers. IBM now adjusts its teleworking practice to accommodate a global business strategy that functions flexibly. The main concern echoed by others surveyed is that freedom from a traditional office environment comes with greater responsibility. 'Employees are accountable for their business performance, results, and accessibility during work hours,' said Mr Tong. 'Teleworking is one of the essential enablers to provide employees with flexibility, and it is no different in all IBM offices in the world, such as Hong Kong, the US or Britain,' he said. However, Ms Wilson noted that teleworking was not for everyone, and was usually best suited for employees with a high sense of self-discipline who could work from home using limited technical support. Most teleworking programmes must also be supported by a management style with an emphasis on results, rather than scrutiny of work being done. Some industries do not readily accommodate computer-based remote operations. To be successful, teleworking requires a strong IT department which has to manage a range of devices and computer networks and work with applications that manipulate information remotely, with a high level of security. Ms Chiu believed that teleworking should not be a privilege that was extended to all employees. 'New employees should not be allowed to work from home until their abilities have been assessed and they have established professional relationships with other colleagues and management,' she said. Companies which decide to implement teleworking should also encourage staff who work away from the office to come in to the workplace at least once a week to prevent feeling isolated from their colleagues, and to boost company loyalty.