Asian employers warm up to telecommuting?

Telecommuting provides to companies in the region, a cost-savings measure against increasiing transport costs and high office rentals.

Oil prices stalking the US$100-per-barrel neighborhood have raised transport costs for workers. Add to that, companies are encountering higher rent. To save costs, employers might therefore be pressured to adopt telecommuting.

Adam Bowden from the IT Commerce Specialist Recruitment Division of recruitment firm Robert Walters, thinks not.

"We are not seeing much direction towards telecommuting at the present time," he told ZDNet Asia.

The biggest concerns for Asian companies, Bowden noted, are additional costs, security and, in particular, productivity.

Said the senior consultant: "The big question will always be asked: How productive will an employee be, working remotely?"

But another Robert Walters senior consultant covering the banking industry, Sohrab Singh, was more optimistic that employers would allow employees to work away from the office.

"It is a relatively new concept in Asia, hence both the employer and the employee will need to be educated on the benefits and pitfalls," he told ZDNet Asia.

"The basic change will need to come in the way the employee's productivity is measured, wherein it will have to be based on setting targets, deliverables and timelines rather than the number of hours spent at work."

A recent survey conducted by IDC and commissioned by Avaya, revealed 81 percent of executives polled across the Asia-Pacific region agreed or strongly agreed telecommuting improves productivity. In 2005, only 61 percent thought so.

The increased positive perception of telecommuting--as a way to improve productivity--was most obvious among respondents in Hong Kong, Australia and India.

It is striking that respondents in China (76 percent) and Singapore (78 percent) viewed telecommuting as a means of improving the work-life balance among their employees.

Way of life
For some multi-national companies operating in Asia, telecommuting is a way of life.

At Cisco Singapore, 40 per cent of the staff are mobile workers without a permanent workstation in the office.

Tom Cheong, Cisco's managing director for Singapore and Brunei, told ZDNet Asia: "Globally, 85 percent of our staff spend time each week working from home, with 24 percent of their work time spent in their homes. This is consistent with both Singapore and the Asia-Pacific region."

Companies like Cisco and Sun Microsystems provide all the necessary equipment and services for their telecommuting staff.

Gan Boon San, president of Sun Microsystems, South Asia, told ZDNet Asia: "For 10 years now, we have an Open Work Program that provides our employees with secure access to their e-mail from home or on the road. On top of that, we provide access to everything. You name it: e-mail, calendar, address book, expense reporting and benefits management."

There are signs that even the small and midsize businesses (SMB) are taking up telecommuting.

Lendl Chong, sales director of telecommunications services company Qala, said that a quarter of his company's business comes from providing telecommuting-related infrastructure and services for SMBs in Singapore.

He said: "The demand has been increasing over the years. It will soon be a norm for people and companies to adopt the concept of telecommuting in the near future. As it is now, employees are already able to work anywhere, as long there's a computer and a phone."

Mobile workforce
It appears Asian companies are embracing the concept of mobile workers who don't necessarily have to be in the office at all.

WAN application delivery and secure Web gateway products provider Blue Coat recently concluded an online survey with 1,100 businesses in the Asia-Pacific region.

The survey explored topics that include the globalization of enterprises and the consolidation of data centres--as well as the mobilization of work forces.

Managing director P.K. Lim of Blue Coat Systems South Asia and Australia/NZ, said: "Interestingly, 77 percent of respondents have at least a quarter of their workforce being mobile, and 86.9 percent of these mobile professionals depend on the network to access their information."

Shalini Verma, research manager for communications research at IDC Asia-Pacific, believes talent shortages will make Asia more receptive to telecommuting--although not as enthusiastically as in the United States.

"In many markets, the shortage of skills will force enterprises to provide more flexibility to employees, and hence will encourage telecommuting. Also, the challenges of daily commute and the high cost of office real estate, will force enterprises to encourage telecommuting," Verma told ZDNet Asia.

Gan from Sun Microsystems said: "Another benefit of our Open Work program is that it enhances our ability to attract and retain the best talent available. In fact, our Open Work platform is one of the top reasons that 85 percent of our mobile workers say they would recommend Sun to external people."

Cisco's Cheong thinks that Asian employers will eventually warm up to telecommuting regardless of transport costs or office rentals.

"Many organizations in Asia perhaps do not have the same culture [as Cisco], but this is going to change over time, especially as the Gen Ys and the Millennials (born from 1991 onwards) enter the workforce and assume management positions."

Billy Teo is a freelance IT writer based in Singapore.