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Telecommuting to be tested during COVID-19 pandemic

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Increased demand will be placed on our broadband network with more people telecommuting (Image via Pixabay)

With more and more people being isolated and working from home, the nation's broadband infrastructure is about to be put to the test, writes Paul Budde.

THIS IS A BIT of deja vu for me. In the 1990s, I received a lot of media attention because of the arrival of broadband networks in the promotion of telecommuting. After very little or no interest in teleworking over the last decade, I am suddenly asked again to comment on teleworking as it gets renewed attention in the wake of the coronavirus.

The early interest in teleworking was linked to the increased availability of broadband services. A key reason why I was asked to comment on it during that period was the fact that from our bush office in Bucketty in Lower Hunter Valley, most of our staff worked either full time (researchers and analysts) or part-time (marketing and I.T.) from their homes. So we could share our own first-hand experience with the media on this topic.

Now, some 20 years later, I can only say that our experience has been fantastic both for the company as well as for our employees. The fact that most of the staff that started to telework are still working for the company is an indication that it worked well for them and from a company point of view, it has been a great success story. It certainly helped us in achieving high levels of productivity.

There were and still are lots of reasons why teleworking never took off in any significant way. Having said this, what has increased significantly among office workers are more flexible work arrangements. Some include working from home — for example, starting early working from home to avoid peak hour traffic, leaving early from work to pick up the kids and then work a few hours from home in the early evening. Another element that has seen a significant increase is working from home for just one day a week.

There is still the control issue that many bosses have problems with. They don’t trust their workers without direct control. Another issue here is that if people start working from home in larger numbers what would be the role of these bosses?

To have an effective teleworking system, you first do need to have good quality broadband networks.

One of the most important downsides of teleworking is the lack of contact with colleagues both professionally and socially. To overcome this, you do need a good quality teleconferencing system across the group of people you work with. Some of the larger companies such as law firms have set up well-functioning systems and the people that are using them feel that they stay very well connected.

It is often expensive to set up these high-quality and secure private network systems running over public infrastructure. Many good quality systems have also been set up at the homes of C-level executives, especially with international connections.

Teleworking works very poorly in the case of people that have certain problems with work as well as life discipline. On the work side, people for whom teleworking works well are those who can stay focused on the work they have to do. On the lifestyle side, the fridge is very close to the working place and some people are very tempted to keep raiding it.

When I was assisting the previous Labor Government with the NBN, I was particularly interested in promoting the network for applications such as e-health, tele-education, smart energy and teleworking.

Some parts of the NSW Central Coast were among the first to receive a fibre-to-the-home network and this area was earmarked for a teleworking trial. Many people from the Central Coast commute to Sydney so there was a willing number of people to trial the service. However, with all the turmoil around the NBN that happened when the Coalition Government came into power, changing the fibre network into a multi-technology mix system, there was no longer the opportunity to remain a good quality service. The people involved in the trial all had to have their teleworking connections with their workplaces in Sydney and soon the whole trial petered out.

Another initiative around the early NBN was an e-health system for remote communities in Western Australia. Changes to the Medicare system were made so that people in these remote communities could have free telehealth consultancy session with healthcare specialists in the larger cities of WA. But this trial was discontinued by the Coalition Government. Doctors in regional WA have ever since lobbied for such services even as late as September last year when there was no sign of the virus whatsoever.

Back to the coronavirus.

Many businesses, schools and universities are now massively testing telework facilities. This will be for the first time that this application will receive a full and thorough test on many levels. The big question will be: are organisations able to provide and manage such services as most have failed to properly test it during the last 20 years? There is nothing better to test this than a real live emergency.

What happens with workplace safety, who is responsible for proper facilities, working space setups, equipment, network connections, security, privacy and so on? There won’t be any time for proper assessments, training and fine-tuning. It will be interesting to see what the fallout of the many mishaps will be once the virus recedes. This is unavoidable in the current race to get some of these teleworking facilities in place before full lockdowns are ordered. On the other hand, where the experience has been positive there won’t be a way back as many people will want to maintain this facility, so it will be a boom for this application going forward.

Telehealth is getting a massive boost with a $100 million package from the Government to allow teleconference sessions through FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp, with health practitioners paid for by Medicare. This will be limited to those people who are in quarantine and to people at high risk of contracting COVID-19, who need to see a doctor for other reasons.

This will again lead to a massive increase in the use of this application. And also here, if successful, it will be a massive boost for teleconsults once the crisis is over. Valuable lessons will be learned during this period.

All these initiatives will be a good test for the NBN. Will it be able to support the massive teleworking and teleconferencing sessions that will be conducted over the network? How will the various multi-mix technologies involved in the NBN cope with this increased demand? Time will tell and you can expect a full assessment of this in months to come.

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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