First-person perspectives on the world of work
Photo: École polytechnique - J.Barande - CC BY-SA 2.0

The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 1
Working Hours

Telework: Wild ride or win-win?

5 January 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a sudden explosion in the number of people who telework, even in jobs that no one would have imagined it possible to do. Jon Messenger, a Senior Research Officer a the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland has been studying how telework has evolved in the last 20 years and talks about its present and future in the world of work.


-From the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland,

this is the Future of Work.

I’m Karen Naets-Sekiguchi.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the future

of work literally to our doorsteps.

For many of us, our home has become our office,

and telework will certainly be a bigger part

of that new normal everyone keeps talking about.

Before the pandemic, just a fraction of people were teleworking.

At most around 30% in Denmark, the Netherlands,

and Sweden to less than 2% in places like Argentina.

Then as COVID was declared a global public health emergency,

thousands of workers were told to work from

home to contain the spread of the virus.

While most of us have by now figured out that

setting up our computer in the kitchen might

be just a little too close to the fridge

and the sofa a bit too comfy to get anything done, really,

we’re still trying to figure out the best way

to manage and protect people in large scale, long-term teleworking.

At the beginning, it was a pretty scary experience for a lot of people.

-It certainly hasn’t been an easy adjustment for anybody.

It’s like as if you were trying to learn how

to swim and you didn’t really know how to swim,

most people had no idea how to swim,

and rather than letting you go into the shallow end of the pool,

they drop you in the deep end of the pool, and they say, "Okay,

now sink or swim?"

-Jon Messenger is a Senior Research Officer

at the International Labour Organization in Geneva.

He’s not only been teleworking like a lot of us lately.

He’s also been studying the phenomenon

for the last 20 years or so.

-Telework has exploded.

With telework went from being something that was voluntary,

something that, really, you had to seek,

you had to request permission for and was done on a very

part-time or occasional basis to something that was required,

that was mandated by your organization,

and done on a full-time basis. This is a radical change.

-Teleworking used to be thought of as a kind of privilege,

a reward or a perk for high performers,

who managers trusted enough to work anywhere, anytime.

COVID-19 changed all that.

Could teleworking even be done on such a grand scale?

You’ve been looking at teleworking,

studying teleworking in all its aspects for years.

This must come in some ways it’s no

surprise to you that it would be doable.

-Yes, I wouldn’t say that there’s no pushback now.

I think this push, this impetus,

this irresistible force of having to do something

to try to protect workers

and the organization, and indeed,

the society as large from COVID,

trying to minimize the chance of transmission of the disease.

Not only was it a push for workers.

It was also a push for managers and organizations

who had very much been resistant.

Not all of them, of course, but there was a strong resistance.

You can see it, particularly in the areas of the world where

there’s well-developed IT infrastructure.

Because one of the things that we talked about in my book that I did,

which came out last year, Telework in the 21st Century,

is how far fewer people were actually

teleworking than potentially could telework.

-What was holding them back?

What was the mitigating factor there?

-Organizations and managers.

Many times, organizations with rules that made

it very difficult to telework, if not impossible.

Even in many organizations that actually permitted,

or if we even encouraging telework, managers and particularly frontline

managers really were highly resistant to it.

There were many differences that we found across the countries,

but one of the things that wasn’t different,

it was only different in degree but was the same across

all 15 countries was managerial resistance to telework,

particularly frontline supervisors because

they felt that they would lose control.

Managers have this need to control.

There’s a logical reason for this because they’re the ones,

particularly the frontline supervisors who are not managing

other managers but are managing the employees directly,

they are the ones who are responsible usually for reporting

on the results and the outcomes achieved by their unit.

They are very reluctant to give up control for fear

that they won’t be able to hit the targets.

They won’t be able to achieve the levels

of performance that they need to achieve.

However, we knew already from the research that had been

done on telework productivity and performance.

In fact, teleworkers, if anything perform at a higher level

and a more productive than other workers.

-COVID-19 democratized telework,

no longer a fringe benefit for the privileged few.

With more people working from home,

Jon says a new kind of management is needed.

-You cannot use what some kinds called management by walking around.

As one article, I forget where I read this, but one article said,

if you’re in the office, the managers can see that you’re not asleep

and that you’re not playing computer games.

Therefore, they assume you must be working hard.

Of course, the flip side of it was that if they couldn’t see you,

they assumed-- as actually was reported

in the American study that was part of my book.

If they can’t see the employee, they assume they must be slacking off.

-The guide it says that the new era of teleworking will

require much wider use of a new kind of management.

One which is more trusting and more results-based.

How do you get that trust? How do you put that into practice?

-One of the things that we emphasize is

the idea that you need very clear goals,

objectives, deliverables, and timeframes.

You need to have some dialogue between the manager

and the employee regarding what those are.

Those need to be established very clearly indeed in writing so that

it’s clear to everybody what is going to be delivered by when.

We recommend that managers step back and let workers

figure out how to organize their own time and tasks.

It’s something that we talked about in the future of work report,

which we call time sovereignty, which is just a very fancy term.

Time sovereignty is a fancy term for really

just having control over your own working time.

Gets into another area that, that I do a lot of work on.

You control your work schedule.

You decide how you’re going to manage your time because

time for a teleworker is not like time in the office.

Why is it different? Because time in the office is

structured in blocks, very clear blocks.

You come to the office, you start work,

you take a coffee break or a tea break or whatever,

then you work another block, then you take a lunch break or whatever.

This could happen to any time of day or night,

even if you’re a night worker.

Whereas telework by its nature is I call it chorus. Why that?

I mean, it’s not structured in these very clear blocks.

You might get up and you might start working right away.

For me, I check my emails before I even make

coffee or have breakfast in the morning.

I do an initial email check before I do anything else.

[background noise]

-Done, that’s a school run done.

We started teleworking because of the pandemic.

I realized that the way I’d been doing things before,

I had a work hat on when I was at work

and my mommy hat on when I was at home.

All of a sudden, the two were at the same place at the same time.

It was really confusing for me.

It was an interesting experiment

to suddenly be doing both at the same time, but it’s like anything.

It takes practice. Once you’re in it, you’re doing it and it’s fine.

Now, I’m used to it.

At first, it was really tricky when the kids were home

and doing homeschooling because of the pandemic.

Now that they’re back at school, it’s totally doable.

Actually, I really, really like it.

The downsides of teleworking is that it’s sometimes

it’s really hard to-- the lines get blurred.

When you’re working and when it’s personal time,

when it’s off time, and really it ends up being

up to you to be disciplined about-- [crosstalk]

-You see this porous. You’re going from

your work tasks to personal activities.

If you did what we call a time diary study,

you would see how porous it is.

It’s just the nature of the beast is that you have way more

of this blending of work and non-work activities and one

actually has to be very careful about it.

-I was going to ask you, Jon, because you’re always telling us about

putting making borders between these blocks.

-Each person has to put their own border around it.

That’s the tricky part.

Call them boundary management strategies.

Boundary management first requires

that there be some broader framework.

It can be a national framework.

It could be a sectoral framework.

It could be an organization level framework,

but you need some overall framework to start

with rather than just kind of the wild, wild west.

Otherwise, you could end up working all the time.

The greatest danger with telework isn’t that you will underperform,

or that you’re slacking.

The greatest danger is you’ll work longer hours.

-Has there been much national legislation,

any standardization of how to work with teleworkers?

-Actually, Europe is probably the leader in that respect,

which is a bit ironic because telework originated in the US,

in the state of California.

There are some regulations in the state of California,

but there are not any national regulations in the United States,

despite the fact that telework began

there in California in the mid-1970.

It was actually Europe in early 2000s

that developed the first broad framework.

It’s actually a social partner agreement called

the European framework agreement on telework.

That’s been transposed into a number of national laws across the EU.

It was the very first basically at European

level among workers and employers,

organizations where they came up with an agreement on a broad,

what I call flexible framework for telework.

That then has the force of European law.

-What are some of the elements in that agreement?

For example, what do they talk about?

What do they regulate?

-For example, ensuring that the employment

conditions of teleworkers are the same

as the employment conditions of those who are working in the office.

You might say it’s very hard to ensure that they’re the same.

Exactly, they’re not maybe exactly the same,

but the idea is that they should effectively be equivalent.

Things like protections of workers for health and safety.

Things like ensuring their rights to freedom of association

and collective bargaining and union membership,

everything across the board.

It’s just about every aspect of work you can think of,

but in a broad framework, rather than in detailed prescriptive rules.

In other places at national level, for example, in the US,

it’s the federal government that has telework legislation,

that telework enhancement act which was enacted in,

I think it was 2010.

I believe it was 2010 under Barack Obama’s presidency.

In fact, Obama, interestingly enough,

called himself the teleworker in chief because

he worked out of his own home which is the White House.

It was interesting because you’d never--

-Never heard that.

-Yes, it’s not very well known.

It wasn’t one of his best-known initiatives, but yes,

he called himself teleworker in chief.

He made a priority of actually putting in legislation.

This you probably will find very interesting in this context.

One of the reasons cited for the legislation

was the experience of federal government employees using telework

during previous epidemics and pandemics.

First of which was the avian flu back in 2000.

One of the logics behind the telework enhancement

act was to ensure that every federal employee,

to the extent practicable to work at least one day a week remotely.

Because first of all, it thought it was productive way of working.

Second of all, they wanted to be able to

rely on this in case of another pandemic.

One of the logics of the telework enhancement act in the United

States was explicitly to basically prepare the way for federal

agencies and federal employees to be able to go to telework

whenever that was required is a business continuity measure.

-Already very forward-looking in that legislation.

Speaking of forward-looking and since this is about the future of work,

I’m wondering what you’re going to be looking

at in the coming months and in your research?

-What we really need to know, I think is what has been the incidents,

what has been the percentage of the workforce

that’s been using telework during the pandemic?

What are the different sectors where it’s been used most widely?

What are the different occupations, where it’s been used most widely?

Then of course, how well has it worked in practice?

The anecdotal information that I’ve gotten has

suggested that it was a very rough going first.

-Has there been anything that surprised

you either in practices that you’ve heard about?

I suppose people are sharing their practices with you.

Did anything take you by surprise?

-I couldn’t believe, I was astonished by how widely used it was.

I was astonished by the fact it was being used for some jobs that

I don’t think I really even thought could be even teleworkable.

-Like what?

-You want one example?

-One example, yes.

-One of my former colleagues,

actually a former supervisor from US DoL,

who I still maintain contact with told

me that all of his kids were teleworking,

even the one who does-- Is it Pilates?

Am I pronouncing it correctly?


-Pilates because she couldn’t work initially during the pandemic.

She changed her approach to be able to do Pilates remotely.

I never would have thought that that could even be done remotely.

I think contrary to what we saw prior to the pandemic,

it’s going to be open to a much broader array

of employees in a much wider range of sectors, occupations,

and jobs than it was prior to the pandemic.

What I foresee is really post-pandemic a much higher,

dramatically higher rate of telework,

but on a part-time or occasional basis, as well as being voluntary,

something that workers actually seek.

Frankly, it’s utility as a means

of balancing paid work with personal life.

As we say back home, the horse is out of the barn.

The hard horse is out of the barn.

It’s running, it’s galloping down the road,

and there’s no bringing it back.

There’s no way back.

-Just hold on and say, "It’d be a wild ride."

-It’s going to be a wild ride.

I think it’s going to be a very successful ride.

The beauty of it, to me,

is that telework offers the opportunity for a real win-win.

You can give the worker the chance to better balance their paid work

with their personal lives if they know how to practice it correctly,

how to disconnect,

how to manage the boundary between paid work and personal life,

and if the organization and their managers support them on that.

It can be a win for employers and organizations as

well because it can raise productivity and performance.

I think it can be a really, really

big win-win situation for everyone.

-Well, we will see in the coming months. Jon, thanks a lot.

It’s always fun talking to you.

-Very welcome, Karen. It’s always a pleasure.

-Join us soon for another edition of the ILO’s Future of Work podcast.