Not the type for teleworking

Spain's corporate culture has yet to find a balance between home and the job

In the United States, some workers get up, take a shower, get dressed and then, instead of driving to work, turn on a computer in their own home. There, coffee cup in hand, they say hello on Skype to other colleagues who, like them, are not going into the office. They're the teleworkers, an emerging force that accounts for about eight percent of all employees in Spain, versus 15 percent in the United States and 17 percent in Nordic countries such as Finland.

This form of working started out in the United States in 1994, when AT&T did a pilot project with 30,000 of its workers. It's not just about working from a distance, as many people think, according to Jordi Vilaseca, a professor from the University of Barcelona and director of the IN3 Observatory of the New Economy. Teleworking is a specific professional relationship and as such, must include a contract that stipulates the employee's working conditions.

"Here, if managers don't see what you're doing, they don't trust you"
Studies show that workers feel more satisfied and less stressed

Checking company email from home or when one is off work is not teleworking. In order for it to be considered teleworking, employees must dictate their own pace for their tasks and rely heavily on information technologies, says Vilaseca. At present, teleworking is not regulated in Spain. In November, however, the government announced it as one of its policies for the reconciliation of professional and family life, and is currently developing it, according to sources from the Prime Minister's Office.

Meanwhile, some regions are already taking their own steps. Castilla y León is drawing up a pioneer decree that will regulate teleworking, which will be ready in the first quarter of 2011. Why is this country still not convinced by teleworking? Jordi Vilaseca thinks that the Spanish business sector "is still making the transition from the industrial economy to the knowledge-based economy."

Margarita Mayo, a professor of organizational behavior and leadership at the IE Business School, chalks it up to a national culture, which is in turn applied to corporate cultures: "In countries like Sweden there are executives who, at three or four in the afternoon, have finished their work and go home. People envy them and think, 'What a good job they must do, to be able to go home so early.' In Spain, a person who leaves at 4pm isn't thought of as being efficient; they're seen as not committed."

Company management in Nordic countries, says Mayo, is much more results-oriented: employees are clearly told what their objectives are, and also told what bonus or reward they will receive if they meet them.

The president of the National Committee for the Rationalization of Spanish Schedules, Ignacio Buqueras y Bach, agrees: "Unfortunately, the culture of 'face-time' is deeply rooted, and must be eradicated. [...] We've got to move toward the culture of efficiency, seeking excellence, if we want to be productive in an increasingly globalized world."

Another reason why teleworking hasn't caught on as much as in other parts of the world is the leadership style of executives in this country. "In Spain, there is a culture of control, of being on top of the employee," says Mayo, because "if you don't see what they're doing, you don't trust them." Surprisingly, however, the problem with teleworking is that people usually work too much, as many hours as it takes to finish the assigned project. This has been the experience of José Antonio Gelado, a journalist specializing in technology who has worked from home for more than a decade: "If you don't adapt properly, your job ends up eating up your personal space, and you work more."

Companies that bank on teleworking agree that it boosts efficiency and helps retain talent. The Madrid subsidiary of Kellogg's is a pioneer in what they call "flexible work": a concept aimed at results, with total freedom to decide one's hours and place of work. Even the offices are adapted so employees can move around according to their needs, resulting in energy savings of up to 60 percent.

Public administrations are following the example set by the private sector. Last week, 29 workers from the Basque department of justice started participating in a pilot project. They will work from home three days a week, saving many people long commutes.

The Catalan government also carried out two pilot plans, in 2008 and 2010, with a total of 80 workers, and is now thinking about continuing with the project. The experts point out the advantages of teleworking: studies show that workers feel more satisfied and motivated and less stressed, according to Margarita Mayo.

It allows them to avoid traffic jams and endless trips in public transportation during rush hour. Work interferes less with family life, while companies reduce CO2 emissions and save on electricity.

But teleworking has its drawbacks. Family can also get in the way of work (think kids running around, arguments with one's spouse, to give two examples). The main disadvantage is that teleworkers have less contact with their colleagues and bosses. This can hurt them, for example, when they get passed up for a promotion because their superiors don't even consider them. To avoid a problem that Americans call "out of sight, out of mind," the experts usually recommend teleworking a maximum of three days a week.

Another disadvantage is that teleworkers can become psychologically isolated. As José Antonio Gelado admits, "you relate with fewer people, or not in the same way as when you go to the office. There are no colleagues or coffee breaks." But he thinks it's worth it, "because you get to relate differently, and to a different kind of people."

Teleworkers are generally more efficient, despite the threat of family interference.
Teleworkers are generally more efficient, despite the threat of family interference.S. B.

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