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Teleworking and its potential in rural queensland

Chris Capel

'Evesham' Longreach

I have 15 minutes to talk to you about a subject very close to my heart -teleworking and it's potential for rural Queensland. I believe very strongly in the potential of teleworking for rural and remote people, not only to provide much needed employment in rural and remote areas but also as an opportunity to revitalise rural communities as a whole.

I'd like to share with you: -
1. some of my own experience as a home based teleworker;
2. discuss some issues surrounding teleworking and also;
3. some information on future teleworking initiatives happening in QLD and beyond.

OK so what is teleworking or telecommuting, a term which I believe can be used interchangeably? Teleworking is working away from a central work site for an employer, and using telecommunications to do so. This can mean working out of a city office at home for a few days or as in my case working from home for an employer some 1400km away. It can mean working from home and or a telecentre or a venue such as the Outback Internet cafe in Blackall. It can also mean working for international employers. It can include full and/or part time work. It can be as simple as telemarketing over the phone or as complex as working with a geographically scattered team on intricate documents.

More and more office based city workers in Australia are beginning to do some of their work in the teleworking mode. Studies have revealed repeatedly that teleworkers basically get more work done while telecommuting, due to a variety of reasons, including the fact that there are less distractions and they don't have to waste time getting dressed up and travelling into a central office. (If I had to do it would take an hour to drive into work and a lot more to get this body and face ready for office work!

Of course not all jobs are suitable for teleworking. Those that require 'hands on' operation or face to face work, cannot be easily done by a teleworker. This includes jobs such as receptionist, some types of counselling work, and jackerooing. Jobs suitable for teleworking are mostly those that are primarily concerned with the handling, processing, transforming and dissemination of information. The number of people employed in this type of work is growing significantly as a proportion of the workforce.

As a home based teleworker you can look like a bag lady (and I often do and enjoy being able to!). The work at hand is the important thing. You have to have good communication between the teleworker and the central office so they know what you are doing and vice versa. It can allow you to organise more flexible childcare arrangements for example I have employed a childminder to mind my 2 year old in my home on teleworking days. We have a large old house and he is happily being minded nearby and I can work uninterrupted. I think teleworking, while being great in terms of the flexibilities it allows any worker, is an especially exciting option for rural and remote people.

How so? Because it can actually create employment in places where none of that type existed before. People can have a much larger variety of jobs to chose from if they are able to telework. Because it can allow rural people many more (and possibly better) employment options EVEN if they are very remotely located.

I spoke to you last year at Charters Towers at the Rural Futures conference with my email friend and ally Gail O'Sullivan about rural use of Internet and the various ways this could be well worthwhile for those in rural and remote areas. I briefly mentioned the potential of teleworking especially for those living in such regions. Since then I have accepted a job with the Office of Rural Communities as a Senior Project Officer -a job to be teleworked from my 1 home. This was a first for the Queensland public service in that someone was offered a position to be fully worked from the home base (in this case a sheep station) Apart from 3 days initial training in Brisbane, I am learning and working the job remotely. I would particularly like to thank Bruce Fleming and the Office of Rural Communities for stepping forward to trial and advocate this new and exciting method of working. We have demonstrated that rural teleworking can work successfully even from a remote sheep station and when using a Digital Radio Concentrator System (notorious though they are for slow data transmission).

Of course, it should be mentioned that if teleworking is to be an option for rural and remote people, there is an even greater need for good telecommunications infrastructure in the bush, so that we are not limited in the types of teleworking we can do by our slow phone lines. For instance, a person using a DRCS would have difficulty teleworking a job that required a lot of web searching as the movement from page to page is simply too slow and therefore costly. Vast file transfers required for database updates would be beyond the capacity of the DRCS also.

I work for the Office of Rural Communities (ORC) from my home "Evesham" 100 km north west of Longreach. My work colleagues are Brisbane based and we work together using phone, fax and Internet. As part of my job, I work with other government departments and rural clients. Often via this medium, although I represent ORC in a face to face capacity in - the Central West at meetings and conferences. Because I live in the region I have been able to have good contact with rural clients and am able to feed back concerns that are raised in my region to the central office.

My job basically involves working with the government to ensure that better policy decisions are made on behalf of rural communities. I do some project work, for instance the Rural Lifestyles Project where ORC is working with shire councils in 20 rural towns in order to promote these towns to potential government employees, some of whom in the past have been under whelmed about living and working in rural areas. This project aims to address that in part, by putting information about the towns and their often comprehensive facilities and attractions up onto the World Wide Web (www). I also write submissions and, provide information for people when needed. I have worked with DPI to disseminate the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management (SCARM) information in order to seek feedback from QLD to the federal level and so on. It varies according to needs at the time and so far I have found it extremely interesting and varied work.

Some of the tools we use to maintain communication between the Brisbane office and me are:- me being subscribed to the ORC's email groups so I get all office messages and can post to them, sending a weekly message to tell people what days I'm working and what I'm working on, teleconferencing into staff meetings, having meeting minutes and agendas emailed to me. It's very important for successful teleworking, that good communications between the office and the teleworker are instituted.

Teleworking has also allowed me to create further employment as I have been able to employ our station hands wife to child mind for us the days I work for ORC. This in turn has made our station hands jobs more attractive as we could advertise it as a 2 people job. We had approximately 40 replies to our advertisement earlier in the year. In a community where people are getting more and more scarce it is nice to be bringing some fresh young people into our community and to know we can afford to pay them well. Any extra money coming into rural and remote communities has a beneficial multiplier effect as in this example.

For teleworking to be taken up in any major sort of way employers/managers have to take that leap of faith from being comfortable with over the shoulder or eyeball management to output or work based management. All this takes is a mind shift. When managers are comfortable that more work and quality work can be done and guaranteed via the teleworking mode, then teleworking will really be taken up in Australia as it has in other countries. As rural and or remote dwellers, we can only try to hasten this process by demonstrating it successfully working and raising awareness of the issues. Rural teleworking can work and it can work well. It could help revitalise rural communities and provide social and economic stimulus in terms of offering work in rural areas that was not previously available. I also think it is important that we think about seeking higher level work for rural teleworkers as some telecentres overseas who are seeking international work have found that workers in 3 rd world countries such as India are prepared to do relatively low skilled work (eg inputting data) for a much lower cost than we are. We should seek to raise awareness that higher level, higher skilled jobs can be successfully worked this way and that there are many people living in rural areas with skills that could be used in a teleworking job that are going to waste.

While pure teleworking jobs are not common place in rural areas, I do know of some others working this way. Annie Pfeffer near Pittsworth is another example of someone working from a remote base for an employer. She is a computer programmer and has been programming from a remote location into a central database for the last 6 years. The last five have been from the farm to various places.

Elizabeth Gillam also has recently done some project based work for the DPI from outside Clifton as a teleworker. This involved working for approximately 2-3 hours each evening. She was responsible for speaking with members of rural organisations, particularly office bearers who were based on their property. Primarily she was to seek feedback about the SCARM national action plan and from this feedback help to develop a State Action Plan. She said "The one thing I have found is that the communication lines need to be kept well and truly open -the team you work with need to accept a teleworker as part of their team and to be flexible on both sides. I found the use of email during this time to be extremely beneficial and I would say that the DPI staff also were surprised at how well it went. They would email me before they left in the afternoon and when they came in the morning all the work was done and presented in front of them" (email from E. Gillam to C. Capel 24th May 1998, Re: teleworking )

A particularly exciting project that should help kick-start rural teleworking and job creation for rural teleworkers is a project called TeleTask. This is the brainchild of Andrew Hunter of the highly successful telecentre in Walcha NSW. This project is seeking funding through the RTIF and it was announced yesterday that it has been approved by the Board. TeleTask involves setting up a national teleworking task force for rural teleworkers. TeleTask will compile a database of people seeking teleworking jobs, match them with jobs for which Teletask will then take a percentage. It is job brokerage for rural teleworkers, and is a badly needed initiative in order to increase the small numbers of rural teleworkers and to open up the opportunities for work for those interested in working this way. It should be noted that it is very difficult for a lone teleworker to seek and find telework. The project will have a web site where interested people can subscribe and become part of the data base. Teletask will give a 100% quality assurance guarantee that work will be carried out to the standard demanded by the employer. This group will work with various people in the private sector and government to raise awareness of and opportunities for teleworking, while explaining to government and the private sector that by employing rural teleworkers, they could help revitalise rural communities economically and as a flow on socially.

QRWN are also seeking approval for an RTIF funded project which will establish rural women as Internet trainers in various rural regions around QLD where this is needed. While they will do some face to face training, they will also actively raise awareness of Internet and related issues via local media outlets, they will work remotely for a Project Manager and in tandem with each other. They will also advocate the concept of teleworking and will be doing some of their work this way. Interesting to note that when the QR WN membership was surveyed over 65% were interested in teleworking and 29% were currently unsure. Only 6% were not interested. Some comments follow.

'Teleworking will be an excellent off-/arm income source without having to leave the farm. Definitely needs higher profile amongst Business/Governments etc in cities! I am currently employed but do not wish to leave a rural community to work in the city. This is a way of bridging the gap between Country and City cousins "

Another comment was “I think this is the best opportunity for rural women. After 5 years uni I married and moved to a property. Unable to find suitable work within 45 minutes drive I started my own graphic design, rural research and writing business from home which relies heavily on using email to deliver work to firms in Sydney, Brisbane, Toowoomba, Geelong, etc. “

ORC itself is hoping to secure funding to put on another 2 teleworkers as Senior Project Officers. This will create a network of rural teleworkers working for ORC -one in the south west and one in north west of QLD.(as well as me in the central west) We are very excited about this prospect.

Another useful teleworking initiative happening in QLD is that Neville Meyers of QUT is currently doing a PhD on teleworking issues. He hopes to survey 200 teleworkers -60% of respondents so far are from Australia. He is looking for rural input into his data (as that has been rare until recently) and is happy to share his findings on issues involving telework in order to promote the concept of teleworking. His survey is on the web and he is very keen to connect with current teleworkers about their thoughts on various social domestic and work related implications for teleworkers.

There is much happening in the teleworking scene overseas. The USA, UK and Europe are much further down the track as regards telecommuting being a normal workplace arrangement. They have had established teleworker associations for some time where teleworkers can share information, lobby for better conditions and understanding of their work situation, attend conferences on teleworking issues etc. In the US as early as 4 years ago the US Department of Transportation and General Services Administration sponsored a government wide telecommuting program to increase opportunities for employees to work part of their regular work week at an alternate work site: either at home or at a telecentre. These sorts of flexible workplace arrangements are being termed 'flexiplace'. The arrangements that allow this sort of working are called telecommuting arrangements (similar to the one I have signed with ORC) and participants are " called telecommuters.

"The establishment of flexible work place arrangements is driven by efforts to improve the quality of work life, employee productivity, the balance of work and personal/family life, the environment, energy utilisation, and other social and economic conditions. The t telecommuting movement is facilitated by innovations in human resources management, changes in the nature of work, and new technology. Many current workers can perform their work virtually anywhere" (I. Joyce, Wendall, "Implementing Telecommuting (Flexiplace) Manual for the Interagency Telecommuting Program, US General Services Administration/US Department of Transportation, Washington)

Bill Clinton in 1994 directed all the heads of executive departments and agencies to implement teleworking. He said "In order to recruit and retain a Federal work force that will provide the highest quality of service to the American people, the executive branch must implement flexible work arrangements to create a "family-friendly" workplace." (Memorandum For The Heads Of Executive Departments And Agencies -"Expending Family-Friendly Work Arrangements in the Executive Branch", July 11, 1994, Washington)

Other countries also are taking up teleworking in a major way including rural communities. A small example are the rural telecentres that are set up in rural areas of the UK and Ireland who seek work in other countries and carry out that work in their small rural town.

Sheila McCaffrey has a successful telecentre in a remote area of Ireland and seeks and gains work for her teleworkers in other countries including the United States. She is a great example of what can be done to create employment in very small rural communities. She actively seeks work by attending trade fairs and working with business associates in the US and elsewhere. Some examples of the types of work the Irish rural teleworkers have done is formatting job applications for an employment agency in Silicon Valley US and filing and preparing medical reports for a Boston hospital during their night time.

A number of local teleworking initiatives are happening or about to at the moment. Some of these will really help promote rural teleworking and ensure that it is more widely adopted. I would like to talk briefly about some of these.

To finish I'd like to tell you a story about something that happened to me on a teleworking day as an example of how the teleworking environment is rather different to the office environment. This is a situation that could only happen to a teleworker. On the days I work for ORC I am contracted to work from 8.30 to 4.30 each day but always start well before that time and usually work well beyond it including taking calls, emails/faxes on non ORC working days (this situation is not confined to teleworking I realise). This is not a problem as I really enjoy my work except one day I decided that as it was nearly 5.30 or so I would have a shower as I'd signed off for the day. (It was in January and one of those really, really hot days).

I am a past Master of short showers as I have children ( one is very young) and the phone I. forever rings at our house and is just one of umpteen activities that all seem to happen concurrently around this time of the day. During this particular shower I had had 3 t- interruptions from my 9 year old son Duncan. This by the way is an absolute no no in our I house -you do NOT disturb us in the shower! Dunc as is his nature had totally forgotten this i directive and had yelled out from the, bedroom door with the cordless phone in hand that so and so is on the phone. And wants to know etc etc etc. By this stage I am getting a bit annoyed at Dunc' s dreadful receptionist skills. As a 4th phone call came in I was rather crankily trying to finish my non-relaxing shower when my son came running in with great urgency only to be met by an irate half dressed mother who was really sick of the interruptions. I said calmly something along the lines of "For God sakes will you get out of this bloody room and let me finish getting dressed in peace. Just tell who ever it is I'll ring back in 2 minutes etc etc etc I'd lost it! Dunc meanwhile has the phone extended out towards me while this is going on and rather belatedly informs me that my boss Bruce Fleming is on the phone. Well a bigger about face I have never done! Being somewhat disconcerted at this turn of events I apologised with great diplomacy, and fervently hoped Bruce was either hard of hearing or missed most of what I said and took the call while I finished dressing, took note of the business Bruce rang about, hung up and then poured showers of abuse on my son's head. ! ! ! ! !

Thank you for listening I eagerly await further developments in the establishment of rural teleworking in rural and remote communities in Queensland and beyond. If you are an employer or manager, the next time you are seeking applicants for jobs, please think about whether that job can be teleworked from a rural base and if so consider employing a rural teleworker.

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