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Knowledge workers are more likely to use telecommuting than other workers.

Dealing with numbers and information lends itself to remote working. Knowledge workers already have the skills and hardware needed to run a remote office. They are self-motivated enough to make telecommuting work.

Yet high-tech employees in Australia and New Zealand are less likely to work remotely than those in other countries.

This has nothing to do with the ease of getting to the office. The highest concentrations of information elite in the region live in Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington.

All these cities suffer traffic congestion. Workers in Sydney’s outer suburbs face a 90-minute or longer journey twice daily. The rush-hour drive from Paraparaumu to Wellington would test the patience of a saint.

Employers don’t like telecommuting

Australian employers need to audit homes before allowing employees to telework because they face industrial injury liability.

This is do-able and it is no excuse in New Zealand thanks to the state-operated Accident Compensation Corporation. I suspect the reluctance stems from the two countries’ unique labour histories.

By world standards, Australia’s white-collar workers are highly unionised. Consequently, managers are more suspicious of their workers than managers in other countries. This is not entirely without reason – few other countries have an institution like the Australian ‘sickie’.

New Zealand is less unionised, but there’s still the same attitude.

Despite the changes that have happened in the workplace over the last 20 years, managers in Australia and New Zealand fear employees left to work at home will spend all day in the pub or at the golf course when they should be working.

This might be understandable when overseeing poorly motivated unskilled workers, but when it comes to information age employees it is insulting.

Management insecurity

In the normal course of events,  it takes a lot of effort to overcome management insecurities. Both countries had brief flirtations with officially sanctioned telecommuting.

In the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, ORTA the Olympic Roads and Transport Authority decided the city’s transport system wouldn’t cope unless companies made alternative arrangements. ORTA ran a campaign promoting teleworking to Sydney employers. For a while companies tried it, most said it was successful.

Auckland had telecommuting thrust upon employers in 1998 when the CBD power network failed. Bosses had staff working from home. My previous employer set up temporary offices in suburban garages.

Although both telecommuting experiences were satisfactory, employers reverted to form and now prefer to see their workers come in through the door each day. After the brief, enforced trials, telecommuting is back to being something of a freak show. That’s a pity.

In the good old days most Australian and New Zealand workers belonged to unions. Pay rises were negotiated centrally. Employers paid a fixed hourly rate for the job, higher rates for overtime and that was that. Each year the union representatives and the management would lock themselves in a smoke-filled room. They would order rounds of take-away sandwiches and hammer out an agreed pay rise.

Of course the process could get nasty. Strikes, lockouts, mass-sackings and even riots were not unknown. Pay bargaining was even tougher in America where negotiation sometimes involved guns. Generally negotiations would settle with an agreement that saw every worker in the organization getting the same percentage pay rise.

The managers negotiating with the unions  often got the same pay rises as union members. In those days merit pay and bonuses were relatively rare. As a young manager in the UK, I was once put in this position myself. Guess how hard I was with the union negotiators during that pay round?

Negotiate benchmarks

Non-union workers, or workers belonging to less powerful unions often got pay rises close to the rates negotiated by the stronger groups. A powerful group would establish the ‘norm’ and then everyone else would use this the benchmark when starting their negotiations.

In countries like Australia, Britain and New Zealand individual pay bargaining gave way to centralised pay negotiations in the 1970s. Union leaders still trooped into smoke-filled rooms, instead of facing local company management they would talk to government and industry heads.

The economic reforms that swept the English-speaking world in the 1980s and early 1990s saw centralised bargaining give way to a system where individuals increasingly had to negotiate their own terms. New Zealanders went on to individual contracts. Many Australian workers – particularly those further down the pecking order were still reliant on centralised negotiations until relatively recently but most white-collar workers and polo shirt-collared knowledge workers have to handle their own negotiations.

Status quo

Employers prefer the new status quo because it allows them to reward valued employees more than people who contribute little to the bottom line. On the whole this is a good thing that few knowledge workers will argue with – during the boom years we all did well out of this system. Some of us did spectacularly well.

However, from our point of view the down side of individual salary negotiation is that it puts a lot of power in the hands of the employers. That’s because of the asymmetric information flow inherent in one-on-one salary negotiations. Information is central to any negotiation – if one side has better or more complete information that the other party, it is at a distinct advantage.

Companies usually have a policy of ensuring staff don’t talk to each other about their salary packages. In some companies, including places where I’ve worked, disclosing details of your remuneration with other staff is regarded as a serious offence. Of course employers have access too their company pay data so they can compare your package with other employees – they often also have access to pay information from other companies in their sector. Sometimes this is informal, though there are organizations that collect and sell salary data on an industry-by-industry basis.

You won’t get far finding this kind of information from job advertisements. Recruiters are often coy about salary levels. They don’t want to alert existing employees to how much extra they would be prepared to pay newcomers. You don’t often get to know what the salary for a job is until you are at a late stage of the recruitment process.

Negotiate armed with information

If you are a prospective employee, you need to get as much salary information as possible before entering negotiations. Indeed, you need to know if it is even worth bothering to negotiate. Likewise, if you want a pay rise from your existing employer, you need to know what other people doing the same job elsewhere earn. This benchmark gives you useful ammunition. It also lets you know whether you should stay or move to a new position should your negotiation fail.

As far as I’m aware, there’s no equivalent of salary.com in Australia and New Zealand (if you know of one then email me). Salary.com is a US site. It shows data about what other people with your skill set earn in any  city or region.

The nearest thing I’ve found is when private research is published in a public forum. New Corporation’s Careerone often publishes this kind of data. Here’s an example of salary information for Australian jobs. Hays Recruitment offers some New Zealand salary information here along with more Australian data. If you hunt carefully you can find other sources. I’ll share any such similar sources that Knowledge Worker readers send to me.

Girls and young women reject information technology careers. They don’t avoid technology because they fear failing. Nor is it because boys push them aside. They walk away because girls see technology as a lonely, boring dead-end career.

An American Association of University Women study in 2000 reported women are only 20 percent of the high-tech workforce. It says women will continue to choose to work elsewhere so long as:

  • Computer science courses remain tedious and dull. girls and technology, computer science remains a male area of study
  • Girl-oriented computer games and web sites remain passive pink playgrounds. Meanwhile action-packed boy software focuses on kill rates.
  • The stereotypical tech workplace is a sterile cubicle farm peopled by boring men who relate better to machines than humans.

When asked to elaborate on their fears girls say they fear studying technology will stunt their range of intellectual pursuits and interests. They also imagine that computer professionals lead a solitary, sedentary and antisocial life.

Of course cynics might note this proves the educational theories saying women are more intelligent than men.

In 2005 the BBC reported most schoolgirls enjoy technology and only four percent regarded computers as boring, but only 25 percent would consider a technical career.

The BBC story points out that in 2005, women made up just 21 percent of the IT workforce and “the proportion of IT workers who were female had declined steadily since the 1960s.”

From outside it looks odd when a company offers workers voluntary redundancy. This happened in New Zealand on Thursday when the ANZ Bank asked staff to volunteer for redundancy.

There’s no confusion a company making such an offer wants to cut its wage bill. This means cutting staff. Or to use the fashionable euphemism ‘downsizing’. To my ears the other popular phrase ‘change management’ is downright Orwellian.

Why would managers offer voluntary redundancies and not draw up a hit list?

Redundancy is most attractive to people who find it easiest to get good jobs elsewhere. It can mean collecting a sizable payout on a Friday and starting a new job, with a similar or better salary, on Monday. They get a windfall, the troubled company cuts its payroll, There’s little disruption and minimal residual resentment from the remaining workers.

To use another modern management cliché: a classic win-win arrangement.

But the people most willing to accept voluntary redundancy, that is those who are most employable, are the people an employer can least afford to lose.

A badly run voluntary redundancy programme can see the experienced, highly skilled, motivated workers depart taking their accumulated knowledge and energy with them. On the other hand, people with few or out-of-date skills are the least likely to volunteer for a redundancy package. So if the process isn’t carefully managed, the overall effect is a dumbed-down workforce.

Of course, this may be deliberate.

Even worse, skilled people opting for redundancy may take their know-how and inspiration to a competitor. In some case, these people could start their own businesses and become competitors.

This is what happened during the 1980s and early 1990s when technology companies kept slashing their workforces. Many lost their best people to competitors, a handful left their employers with the ability and capital to start their own businesses just in time for the dotcom boom.

Ironically, during this period, those technology companies that had earlier cut staff numbers suddenly needed to hire new people to meet the increased demand for experience and skills.