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Teleworking changes the nature of work

For more than twenty years we have been describing the changing nature of work.

This change is not new. Every major technological breakthrough since Adam Smith has had a significant impact upon the organisation and nature of work.

The last time a major paradigm shift occurred was at the outset of the Industrial Revolution when the new technology required employees to leave their cottages en masse to live and work in new centres of industry located close to basic raw materials.

These new centres of industry became the new towns of the 18th century and, in many instances, the forerunners of the world’s great industrial cities. A key feature of the classic industrial city is the routine trip between home and the workplace for millions of employees.

Modern technological developments which rival the significance of steam and electricity are telecommunications and information technology. Now, of course, there is not the same imperative to shift millions of employees to a physical workplace.

With the bits and bandwidth revolution it is now practical to deliver ‘work’ to be done to localities where employees live.

The first author to spell this out for me was Tom Stonier in his book, The Wealth of Information, published in 1983. I read his book on a plane on the way home from London, and I was so impressed I rang him to tell him how much I enjoyed it.

His response was memorable. He asked me to read it again with my feet on the ground to see if I was still impressed. I did and I was.

Stonier pointed out that, as the nature of work changes with the transition to the online economy (he called it the post-industrial society in 1983), the nature of our communities would also change.

He predicted that telework and telecommuting would become a

phenomenon of major significance.

All that time ago he urged us to be measured in our search for the most effective responses. He argued that certain fundamentals need to be remembered:

• Not all people will be interested in or suited to teleworking

• Many traditional managers will be unable to cope with the implications of teleworking in the firm

• Not all jobs are suited to the telework concept

• Telework is not something that any individual must necessarily be committed to for five days a week

• Telework is certainly not something that must become a lifelong phenomenon for an individual.

The telecommunications revolution, and teleworking in particular, is having a fundamental impact on our communities. During the next thirty years the impact will be more profound.

Shopping centres will become more leisure and infotainment orientated. More and more retailing will be done online. Home deliveries will boom.

New education and learning centres will continue to emerge as the online delivery of information picks up.

It will be a long time before we all have a two megabyte link to home but the bandwidth revolution is well underway. Even when the bandwidth is available it is fanciful at this stage to imagine us all being educated remotely at home.

The shape, style and design of our houses will change. The space described as an office in the average project home today is woefully inadequate.

Homes without traditional kitchen are already being built in the USA because of the rising popularity and improved quality of prepared meals.

Changes to the nature of work, shopping, education and training, entertainment and leisure will inevitably produce changes in that other most fundamental of infrastructures – transport.

The silent revolution in telecommunications has produced tens of thousands of Western Australian teleworkers.

As far as I am able to ascertain, however, none of our planners or public policy makers in this State has yet undertaken a definitive analysis of the phenomenon.

Most of our judgements about teleworking and its implications for the future are not based on reliable data.

• Mal Bryce is a consultant to Dow Digital and a former WA Deputy Premier.

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