Georg AICHHOLZER und Andrea KIRSCHNER, 1999
Teleworking has gained increasing importance as a new form of work organisation in Europe during the nineties. This is reflected in a growing number of practical applications and related scientific studies as well as in a widening public discussion. The concept of telework in a narrow sense is understood as working at a distance from an employer, either at home, at a locally-based office, or on the road, using computers and telecommunication to keep in contact and to transmit work results. In a wider sense, teleworking is also understood as work in geographically dispersed groups, either within the same organisation or linking people from different organisations. This more recent image of telework is related to a trend towards networked organisations and is also subsumed under the wider notion of tele-cooperation. Particular organisational models of teleworking include tele-homework, alternating telework, neighbourhood offices, satellite offices and mobile telework.
The increase of telework during the last years has been stimulated by a mix of technological, economic, socio-cultural and political developments. It is largely concentrated on the growing diffusion of alternating forms of telework, tele-homework, and mobile teleworkers and has reached some 4.6 Mio. teleworkers or roughly 3 % of the workforce in EU member states according to a more conventional definition. In Austria, again depending on definition, between 0.6 % and 1.4 % of the workforce can be regarded as teleworkers.
Along with the gradual upswing of teleworking, centre-based forms have also increased in numbers and types although their overall share is still small. The most widely spread forms are known as community teleservice centres or telecottages. Typically, their mission is to counteract geographically determined disadvantages. They usually offer a combination of services based on information technologies to a local community including infrastructure facilities, training, innovation transfer and teleworking opportunities. There are some hundred such telecottages or telecentres all around the world and in Europe around 200 in the UK alone. Further important models and alternatives to individual tele-homework are satellite and neighbourhood offices. Such residential area-based offices have especially been promoted and evaluated with mixed success in a Californian programme for the reduction of commuting.
European experiences with neighbourhood offices can be studied with a project which is analysed in some detail in this contribution. Supported by the Austrian Labour Ministry and an EU telework programme, the Networked European Neighbourhood Offices project – in short OffNet – allowed to investigate the model along with the implementation and running of pilot neighbourhood offices within multi-service telecentres in Austria, Germany and the UK. Four neighbourhood offices were established as pilots during the 18-month project (at Antur Teifi Telematics Centre and Anglesey Business Centre in Wales; Telecottages Freiwald and Waldviertel in Austria). The teleworking tasks comprised a variety of professions and qualifications including social workers in field service, architectural planning and inspection, data entry for an agricultural data base, marketing and administrative tasks.
Principally, the experience showed that neighbourhood offices within telecentres are a sound teleworking model and brought more advantages than disadvantages both for teleworkers and employers. However, the acquisition of companies as clients, the shift of employment to rural areas and, above all, the creation of new jobs turned out to be very difficult. It was mainly public sector organisations which did use the neighbourhood offices. Generally, the market demanded a more flexible interpretation of the model, including the use of decentralised tele-bureaus and alternating telework. Major barriers were the low level of awareness of the neighbourhood office model among employers, the required formal arrangements with a third party, a perceived uneven distribution of costs and benefits for employers and expected control and data security problems.
Among the key requirements to achieve attractiveness and viability are the following ones: demonstrable comparative advantages of neighbourhood offices versus competing forms of teleworking; clear strategic decisions and professional management by carriers of neighbourhood offices; market analysis and intensive marketing strategies; low cost rent conditions; winning anchor clients; balancing social and economic functions of telecentres.
The development, current profiles and perspectives of around 20 telecentres in Austria are the topic of a final chapter. Increasing pressure to cover running costs has pointed to the need for regional specialisation, better co-ordination and management structures and participation in international programmes. A good deal of telecentres is still looking for strategies to achieve commercial stabilisation.