A number of implicit issues underpin the concerns of this chapter and, in particular, the recommendations that follow. These issues are encapsulated in a couple of questions:
- Is teleworking an inevitable component of the move towards an information economy?
- If so, will it, left to its own devices, have:
(a) little impact,
(b) a positive impact, as is the view of the most optimistic scenarios on the emerging information economy and society, or
(c) a negative impact, on issues of equity, opportunities for persons and groups who are now marginalised, the quality of working life and the quality of life in general?
The various chapters have shown that not only is teleworking an inevitable component of the move towards an information economy, but it is already becoming an indispensable component of doing business, manifested among others, in the expanding e-commerce and the booming call centre industry.
The studies also argue that, in the immediate future, the changes we are seeing will, without intervention, may have a negative impact on equity, and negatively impact on the working life of a significant number and hence, on their quality of life.
In view of the results of the sectoral case studies, it is evident that something has to be done to nudge Malaysian corporations, large and small, towards the adoption of telework or, more broadly, towards greater and more effective use of networking technologies. Such nudging has to be in the context of ensuring that the supporting conditions are available, rather than the direct promotion of telework as such. The responsibility for seeing to this lies with government, the corporations, workers as well as other societal elements, such as unions and non-governmental organisations.
It is evident that a framework has to be established to: mitigate the potentially deleterious impacts; avoid the worst mistakes; and promote the conditions to achieve as much as can be achieved of the promise of empowerment in the knowledge society. It will be worth exploring whether the new mode of work may reduce the drudgery of employment in everyone’s working life cycle as well as contribute towards bridging the present digital divide.
Thus, part of that framework will have to explicitly recognise this and seek to introduce regulation/legislation that will ensure a modicum of fairness to those with no option but to be thus employed. The teleworkers at the low- end of the work chain are often ignored in much of the discussion on telework as attention usually tends to be focused on the higher end of the work chain- affecting professionals, specialists and consultants.
The recommendations are thus to be read with the above assumptions in mind.
The recommendations address five main requirements, seen as pre-requisite for successful teleworking. These are:
- Societal support;
- Organisational support;
- Human resources and technical support skills;
- Telecommunications infrastructure; and
- Computer hardware and software.
In terms of these requirements, the needs of special interest groups have to be addressed. The chapter discusses these requirements within three broad areas with their relevant issues and corresponding policy proposals. It ends with looking at the needs of special interest groups and related recommendations.
Social (societal and organisational) support
These issues could be formulated in response to:
1. Perceptions of telework;
2. Management philosophy and practice and work culture; and
3. Regulatory framework.
Perceptions of Telework
The primary issue is the mis-perception of telework, on which hinges many of the perceived disadvantages and barriers to its wider adoption and use. Thus, telework is taken to be individualised work undertaken either from home or remotely. Viewed thus, management has concerns about supervision – whether the teleworker is actually working on the assigned task or moonlighting or just ‘skiving’ and the lack of face-to-face contact in supervision. It also has concerns about the ability of teleworkers, left on their own, to be sufficiently self-disciplined. In addition, it worries about security issues. All these concerns and worries of management are understandable, as are workers’ concerns about being marginalised, or casualised, or losing benefits.
However, as is evident from the case studies and, indeed, studies elsewhere, the likely scenario for teleworking is unlikely to be dominated by individualised and home-based forms. Earlier predictions of the expansion in home-based teleworking have not materialised. Rather, the teleworking scenario is likely to be collective and based in some kind of office context, whether employer- maintained satellite offices or telecentres, or clients’ offices or outsourced satellite offices or call centres, or simply new forms of collective and team- working made possible by the growth of electronic networks and the increasing sophistication of ICT.
Indeed, the viewpoint adopted by the authors of the 1998 status report on European telework, Telework 98, is instructive:
The present bottleneck of European telework perception revolves around seeing it as place-specific, typically at home, with a focus on its isolating aspects at a distance from the perceived ‘normal’ place of work at the employers’ premises. Although these aspects continue to be important and have had a key role in stimulating telework in the past, they are now constraining both understanding and practice. Indeed, home-based teleworking is unlikely to remain the dominant form because the barriers here are often the greatest, including lack of space, conflict with normal home activities, and tax, legal and insurance aspects… Telework exhibits a number of core characteristics which cluster around changes to the what and how of work, rather than around working remotely from some so-called normal location. Telework is work undertaken using electronic network technologies, so that its core characteristics are starting to become a defining feature of all work in the Information Society. It is these core characteristics of work in the emerging network economy, as defining attributes of telework, which are key and which will have a catalytic effect on all future work, including that undertaken on the employers’ normal premises and in face-to-face mode. Indeed, all work, often driven by the shock- troops of telework, is starting to form around networks of multiple and simulta- neous relationships with a constant churn of new markets, products, processes, tasks and skills, largely underpinned by electronic networks but also spilling over into more traditional modes.”
(Source: Telework, 98:9-11)
Adopting such a perspective towards telework means: (1) dropping assumptions about it having only an individualised home-based or even remote location form, thus extending the original concept of teleworking; (2) seeing it in terms of the possibilities to re-organise both work and the organisation; and, above all (3) looking into the ways and means by which ICT could be more fruitfully deployed not so much to individualise work, but to network it without being constrained by space and time.
Recommendation 1: Promote new perspectives on telework
There is an evident need to correct the prevalent view of telework as only individualised home-based or remotely-located work. Such a paradigm shift will have spin-offs for the developing use of ICT in the country. The recommendations which follow are to:
Include teleworking policy in the NITA
As noted, the major body co-ordinating the uptake of ICT in the country is the National Information Technology Council (NITC). The Council has formulated a National Information Technology Agenda (NITA), partly built around the flagship applications of the MSC. It should explicitly incorporate teleworking into this agenda and as part of the national action plan.
Publicise the broader perspective of telework in the media
Currently, the few articles that have appeared on teleworking are largely captive to the prevailing view of it as individualised home-based work. As an important component of the promotion of new perspectives on telework, articles show-casing the broader use of telework should be published in the country’s major newspapers. Such articles could show-case, for instance, call centres or innovative use of networking and ICT to enhance productivity or extend markets as instances of the use of teleworking. A similar approach should be taken in the case of broadcast media, especially television.
Highlight and improve existing instances of telework
There are already in existence several instances of teleworking with which the public interfaces, for instance, systems of payments of bills at post offices telematically-linked to the relevant corporation(s). Improvements in these and expansion of other telematically-supported public services, such as passport renewal centres, in line with the electronic government (e-government) flagship, together with the appropriate publicity, can heighten awareness of the extent to which such forms of telework have provided convenience to the end-users, and the extent to which they have become dependent on it.
Management philosophy and practice
There are two distinct issues:
1. A felt need for face-to-face dealings with business clients; and
- A felt need for face-to-face control and supervision of employees.
The first issue not only has implications for some forms of teleworking, for instance, call centres and the newer implementations of help desks, it also has serious implications for the possible uptake of electronic commerce (e-commerce). For instance, the felt need for face-to-face dealings with business clients could be an obstacle to the development of electronic data interchange (EDI) or electronic forms of tendering. The latter could even be seen as further bureaucratic red tape rather than a more efficient mode of doing business.
Although the second issue is often a function of the misperception of teleworking that equates it to being home-based and individualised, it nevertheless has implications for teleworking in the short term as well as for the re-organisation of work that is needed for the emerging information economy. As noted, such a view is not confined to management; it is also shared by employees and employees’ associations. The case studies indicated a felt need for physical face-to-face control and supervision, itself a reflection of an unstated and unconscious preference for procedure and visibility over results. This felt need is part of the corporate and public sector culture; indeed, it is part of the societal culture.
This culture is probably the single greatest organisational and societal obstacle to the adoption and implementation of telework. It is also an obstacle to excellence as ‘busy-ness’ and presence takes precedence over results and outcome.
As a result:
Management lacks trust in the independence and initiative of employees; Employees have a sense that if one is not seen by ‘those who matter’ one is liable to be forgotten and by-passed, or worse, perceived as not really working;
Employees also have the attitude that colleagues who are not co-present in an office during the stipulated working hours are somehow not really working – an attitude uncovered in the printing and publishing industry case study in the instance of a home-based teleworker; and
Employees often also develop the attitude that the absence of supervision is a licence to slack as far as work is concerned.
Business associations and organisations should organise more courses to
(1) illustrate the ubiquitousness of the above,
(2) show up its deleterious effects, and
(3) provide guidelines on the adoption and implementation of a management-by-results-and-outcomes that does not omit to audit, where needed, the manner by which results are obtained.
On the other hand, employees’ associations and other agencies will need to inculcate a shift away from the present forms of supervision towards acceptance of an assessment by results or outcome.
Recommendation 2: Promote a paradigm shift in management and work culture
Business organisations, employees’ associations and other related agencies should promote a positive teleworking culture which is away from the present forms of work attitude, management and supervision through the following ways:
Employers’ organisations to organise awareness campaigns
Employers pay relatively large sums to attend lectures by consultants on the latest trends in management, including on topics such as business process re- engineering. It should, therefore, not be difficult to organise lectures that specifically address the need for flatter, more flexible organisations, incorporating the use of teleworking in the broad sense defined.
Employees’ organisations to organise awareness campaigns
Employees, too, need to undergo a paradigm shift in their attitude towards work, in particular with respect to the need for greater flexibility in job functions and ways of working, and the increasing need for multi-skilling. Lectures, short courses and workshops need to be organised in order to expose workers to the vast changes now occurring in the world of work globally, and to impress upon them the need to adjust to these changes in order to maintain, if not enhance, their living standards.
Institute a pilot project or projects show-casing the new approach
Government will have to take the lead, in conjunction with the MSC development, to show-case the benefits of teleworking. A good opportunity will present itself with the e-government under the new administrative framework in Putrajaya. Selected departments, after due consultation with all parties involved, crucially the employees, can institute or incorporate telework into their modus operandi. This could take the relatively modest form of a call centre providing assistance and advice to target constituencies, for instance, small and medium industries (SMls), a group said to have made limited use of ICT and which has voiced complaints with regards to bureaucratic red tape.
Benchmarking of such a centre should be conducted not primarily on the basis of ‘time to answer’ but on the basis of ‘number of transfers to obtain the information required’. Such a mode of benchmarking will require the workers in the call centre to: be information/knowledge workers; have command of the range of services available to the SMls as well as the range of regulations pertaining to them; be continually updating that knowledge; and abandon the notion of being gatekeepers, instead adopt that of being service agents. Such a service will be further enhanced if the centre were to function not only as an in-bound call centre, but also as an outbound one, actively promoting new services to the SMls. To function as the latter the centre would require the maintenance of an up-to-date database on all SMls in the country, their use of the centre, and the number and outcome of calls to them. Such a database could be data-mined to provide further indicators on the relative performance of the SMls and the effectiveness of assistance schemes, thus allowing for fine-tuning and more targeted assistance.
Other pilot projects could take the form of satellite offices or telecentres linked telematically to the main office in Putrajaya. Properly undertaken, this will have the benefit of minimising the impact of the move on persons who may have acquired residential property taking into account the commute to work in present locations, in addition to show-casing the possibilities of teleworking. Departments or sections selected for such a pilot should be those with the greatest dealings with the public, thus relieving the public of the need to travel the distance to Putrajaya. Such pilot projects should consider the needs of women and the possibility of providing employment to women in remote areas.
New and more flexible forms of teleworking, if not networking, will emerge with the expansion of ICT into the economy. As many of these new forms are not covered by existing legislation, it is necessary to review the legislation with the objective of extending coverage to them in the interests of equity without at the same time becoming a barrier or disincentive to their adoption. Such a review should engage the active participation of the principal stakeholders, namely, management and workers.
Recommendation 3: Review legislative framework
The existing laws need to incorporate terms and conditions of the different teleworking situations to ensure a fair working environment. These include:
Legislative framework to protect benefits
The laws must protect and enhance the rights of workers to organise themselves. It must also protect and enhance existing benefits of full-time employment, extending them in appropriate fashion to those in different, particularly home-based, locations; as well as to so-called self-employed workers in low-end jobs – such as data entry, the Information Age’s equivalent of the ‘putting-out’ worker of industrial age lore.
In addition, the health and safety hazards associated with ergonomically unsound workstations need to be urgently addressed. The Department of Safety and Health (DOSH) should seek to establish relevant minimum standards and produce advisory pamphlets on working with video display terminals (VDTs).
Furthermore, Standard and Industrial Research of Malaysia (SIRIM) should seek to establish ergonomic standards for furniture billed as ‘computer tables/desks’. This can have positive spin-offs for the furniture industry, locally and internationally.
Laws to accommodate home-based teleworking
In cases of home-based teleworking, by-laws regarding housing and zoning need to be reviewed to accommodate such workers. The ILO Convention on Home Work should be adopted by the government.
Deepen and extend framework of tripartism
Flexibility, outcome-oriented systems, etc., are often seen as threatening to workers because there are enough instances in which this has led to loss of jobs, intensification of work, and reduced real levels of remuneration.
In order that changes in modes of working not be used simply as a means to cut costs, with their concomitant human costs, the country’s existing tripartism needs to be deepened and extended, and the playing field made more level. For this to happen, the freedom of organisation of workers has to be promoted and upheld, within a tripartite framework of continuing consultation and dialogue.
In keeping with the NITA’s vision to involve the whole of civil society, non-governmental organisations and relevant civil society groups should be brought into this dialogue.
The studies turned up a widespread perception that there is a lack of personnel with the following skills that are required for teleworking:
- IT skills (to implement the infrastructure and provide support services);
- Skills (to telework effectively); and
- Managerial skills (to manage teleworkers effectively).
In addition, there is need to ensure the spread of ICT skills and use so that the numbers of the ICT-illiterate are kept to a minimum. Evidence indicates that the gap between the ICT -literate and ICT -illiterate corresponds to existing gaps within society between the better and less well-educated, the better and less well-paid, the urban and rural, and men and women. Such gaps, if not addressed, will lead to greater inequalities in the globalising information economy.
While it now appears likely that there will be no global shortages of ICT personnel at the graduate level, there is nevertheless a concern with the supply at middle levels and the ICT knowledge and skills of school leavers, of women and of the rural community.
Further, the ICT capabilities of graduates in fields not directly related to ICT need to be looked into. The greater proportion of students in tertiary institutions are in humanities and social sciences (including management and business administration). Tertiary institutions should be further pushed to incorporate ICT use at its highest level in teaching, learning and research in the training of students in the humanities and social sciences. This is especially important as the development and delivery of content over networks is a major growth area, and the development and delivery of content is an area that lends itself to teleworking, especially in the network mode.
Recommendation 4: Promote ICT knowledge and skills to target groups
The primary target groups are schoolchildren, particularly those not likely to go on to tertiary education or to technical education and skills training (TEST) institutions, women, members of rural communities and tertiary-level students in non-ICT-related fields. In addition, those in the older age group should also be afforded facilities to acquire some basic knowledge in ICT use.
Intensify the computers-in-education programme in all schools
The focus should be on schools attended by the less privileged who are less likely to go on to tertiary education. It is suggested that the intensification of this programme adopt a low-cost approach, namely, by use of previous generation personal computers and low-cost/free network-capable operating systems with a decent low-cost/public domain software base comprising applications, utilities and development tools. Such an approach has the advantage of developing a mind-set that is not captured by a specific operating system or application, as well as encouraging self-help, experimentation and development.
Within the school curriculum, ICT should be integrated into the teaching- learning process, and not as a separate subject area. The school can establish its own intranet and network with other schools and suitable institutions, thus making network operation an integral part of the education process, preparing the ground, in the context of an e-community of co-operative teaching-learning, for the teleworking mode which will be a part of the work- and life-style of the emerging generation.
The Computers-in-Education (CIE) programme should also make special effort to interest and involve more girls. Women, with basic education, are the likely holders of low-end jobs – such as data entry work or some call centre types of work – in the Information Age. Without adequate preparation, it will be difficult for these women to upgrade their skills and thus map out an exit from such low-end jobs.
Enhance and extend facilities for ICT education
There is a fairly extensive system of technical education and skills training supported by both the public and private sectors. The client base is school leavers who wish to obtain additional qualifications prior to entering the labour market. Relative to the total pool, the numbers benefiting from such training are on the low side, and the numbers obtaining training in ICT are even smaller. An even smaller number go on to more advanced training. Furthermore, males make up the overwhelming majority of those going through the TEST system.
As the government is currently being advised on the further development of the TEST system, two specific points are made here. First is to note the
necessity of ensuring that more women are provided the opportunity for such training. Second, is the need to incorporate business and communication skills into the core curriculum, in addition to technical ones.
Develop delivery of continuing and life-long education
The growth of the information economy and trends in global economy suggest that employees will need to undergo skills adjustment several times during their career. Currently, larger corporations offer opportunities to their employees for further training and re-skilling, either through in-house efforts or through outsourcing, often funded by the Human Resources Development Fund to which they are required to contribute. Other than this, there is little by way of continuing education, especially for the retired.
There are a few mechanisms through which to deliver continuing and life-long education:
Short courses delivered through television and/or the Web;
Longer part-time courses by means of distance learning aided by the Web and the broadcast media, with minimal entry requirements, all gatekeeping functions being shifted to the point of exit; and
A system for limited time off from work to follow approved full-time short courses either to be self-financed through the Employees’ Provident Fund and/or to be financed by the employer.
Again, such courses should have minimal entry requirements, with gatekeeping functions being shifted to the point of exit. Existing institutions should be encouraged to develop such courses. Other than those, including pensioners, seeking a low-cost means of upgrading their knowledge and skills, a longer-term potential target group for such courses would be the industrial workers, a group potentially at risk should the development of the country replicate that seen in high-income countries where industrial workers have borne the brunt of the cost of change. Another such group would be the low-grade clerical workers, the majority of whom are women.
Promote dialogue between industry and IHEs
It is common to hear of an alleged mismatch between the skills of graduates from institutions of higher education (IHEs) and those demanded by industry. This is a long-standing issue and touches on different philosophies and approaches to higher education, with merit on all sides. More regular and systematic dialogue is necessary in order to have IHEs fulfil their roles as institutions of higher education in the classical sense, and yet meet partway the demands of industry for higher training.
That there will have to be a compromise is clear: the emerging Information Age is one in which flexibility and re-skilling will be an abiding need, thus training will not be sufficient preparation; yet, education alone will not sufficiently equip graduates to be ‘up and running’. An ideal mix would be for IHEs to concentrate on education in the broad sense of ‘learning how to learn’, of nurturing inquisitiveness and creativity, and of learning how to ask the ‘right’ questions, while industry provides the necessary on-the-job training with the help of IHEs, if necessary.
Such regular and systematic dialogues will help establish the necessary mix of concepts and information that graduates require, the skill sets needed in industry at any particular point in time, and the appropriate programmes to satisfy these needs.
Establish telecentres/cybercafes in under-privileged areas
Cybercafes are largely being established in urban areas. However, the real need, in light of the cost of Internet-ready PCs as well as the cost of telecommunications, is in poorer rural areas and poor urban and circum-urban neighbourhoods. Businesses could, with a judicious combination of fiscal incentives and grants-in-aid, be encouraged to set up telecentres/ cybercafes in such areas.
Failing this, philanthropic voluntary organisations and/or the government should step into the breach. Such telecentres/ cybercafes should function as points of appropriately packaged instruction in ICT and as service-providers by, for example, initiating income-generating activities managed by the community. Under-privileged women should be one of the main beneficiaries of such programmes.
A distinction should be drawn between infrastructure capability and infrastructure pricing. It is our view that infrastructure capability is not a major issue, with the notable exception of provision for rural areas, while infrastructure pricing, for local entrepreneurs and consumers, is an issue. Physical infrastructure is either already, or will shortly be, present in adequate levels, if not necessarily at the right prices. Whatever deficiencies there are can be remedied with additional investment or perhaps a modification of the existing regulatory environment to push for greater co-operation between network providers.
While there will always be a demand for greater bandwidth on networks and greater processing capacity in computers, the existing infrastructure is, as noted, adequate to a good proportion of what it is used for – the transmission primarily of text-based data and a limited amount of graphics. In any case, network developments are proceeding at such a pace that existing shortcomings in bandwidth will be resolved in the near future – that is, until content providers and software developers again push the envelope, in a seemingly unending cycle. Already, cellular systems should shortly be capable of 56 Kbps data transmission, while Internet telephony, with its bandwidth demands, has become feasible over 56 Kbps connections.
Thus, infrastructure cannot, and should not, be the excuse for failure to make greater use of existing capabilities. In this, as in other areas, the orientation should be towards technology-management, rather than for it to be technology-led. Of course, there is room for improvement, accepting present bandwidth limitations, in such areas as reliability of connection, better routing, and so on.
While the above is generally true, in many rural areas, especially in Sabah and Sarawak, the provision of infrastructure – power and telecommunications – is indeed a serious bottleneck. Without reliable power, IT use is hazardous; and without telecommunications, networking, other than limited LANs (local area networks) or intranets, is impossible. This is a situation that exemplifies the divide between the information rich and the information poor; it threatens to further marginalise the rural population, which is already economically poorer. In any case, it rules out of consideration the use of teleworking as a means of integrating rural communities into the mainstream of development.
Recommendation 5: Speed up the timetable for universal access
Given the speed of development of the information economy, the present timetable for universal access is too slow, and the targets insufficiently ambitious. Hence it is crucial to:
Explore other technologies for rural areas
Current targets for universal access are based on fixed-line technologies. Other options, some of which have been implemented in selected locales, should be seriously considered, including developments in satellite-based communications, an option being seriously adopted by telecommunications company Telstra for the possibly even more intractable Australian outback. A working group, bringing together all the major players in the telecommunications industry, should be established for this purpose.
Set up teleworking pilot projects in selected rural areas
The provision of infrastructure to rural areas is caught in a ‘chicken-and-egg’ situation. Network providers face a financial penalty because population sizes, and hence the anticipated volume of traffic, mean the unlikelihood of a reasonable return on investment. Thus, there is the need for cross-subsidies, a situation increasingly made more difficult by emerging international arrangements in the trade in telecommunications. On the other hand, without the infrastructure, there is no possibility of developing activities that can generate the volume of traffic that will render economic the provision of infrastructure.
This situation needs a bold move, with the assistance of the government. A realistic option, given the availability of young persons with at least 11 years of education and the existence of relatively well-educated women who are out of the labour force or are unemployed, is to establish a teleworking pilot project in a few selected rural areas, and use this as the means to provide the needed infrastructure. Such a pilot project can take the form of a call centre serving a domestic clientele. In addition, it would serve the social objective of reducing rural-urban migration. Timeliness is of the essence or else, as with basic education, those living in rural areas will find themselves facing a retreating goal post in the race towards an information economy.
Infrastructure pricing: Telecommunications
The issue of the pricing of the infrastructure is real. Further, the pricing of higher-end products is a deterrent to uptake, which may result in some of these products being overtaken by technological development; for instance, such may be the fate of the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN).
Recommendation 6: Review telecommunications pricing structure/regulations
A review of telecommunications pricing should be undertaken, specifically with a view to instituting a regulatory structure that will most effectively promote cost efficiency and competition. An independent audit of the current system of cost accounting of the network providers, with a comparison to that of major regional competitors and discounting inefficiencies, should be undertaken, and tariff ‘caps’ and rates should be revised in line with this audit. While open access is a step in the right direction, the ‘cap’ on charge differentials should be quickly removed to further promote competition and the most efficient provider. However, in order that the dominant provider not have an unfair advantage, this should be done under an overall review of pricing of access to the network as recommended above.
Infrastructure pricing: Computer and Software
Aside from telecommunications, the cost of computing is also relatively more expensive in Malaysia. While some of this is the simple outcome of being a middle-income country, there is nevertheless a component that apparently relates to the pricing policies of major vendors and their local distributors. For instance, given that there is no duty on hardware and software, there appears to be no reason, after allowing for shipping and handling, why software, for instance, should cost significantly more than the simple exchange rate equivalent of the US price. This has been a longstanding complaint and it should be looked into, again.
Recommendation 7: Review price differentials in hardware and software
A systematic review of the level and reasons for price differentials in computer hardware and software in the region and selected countries outside the region should be undertaken with a view to raising this matter at international forums as well as a matter of discussion and negotiation with the companies concerned.
Encourage development and use of local software
One way around the cost of software is to further encourage the development of the local software industry as well as to alter mindsets so that there is greater willingness to consider the use of software from other than the major international players.
While it is understandable that for mission-critical functions most corporations will go with established developers and vendors, both because of the proven character of their software as well as the level of support they can provide, there is no such consideration for the usual office applications suite, in particular the most widely used office application, namely, word- processing.
In so far as users have a mindset that ‘standard’ software on ‘standard’ platforms from the established software houses are better, and that they should have the latest version, it will be difficult for the local software industry to make a breakthrough in the local market for office applications.
The government should take the lead in promoting the use of alternative platforms and cheaper alternative software, including shareware and public domain software, in the usual suite of office applications.
Needs of special interest groups
Teleworking is an important means by which:
The disabled can obtain employment;
Women who are outside the labour force, either by choice or circumstance, can be given an opportunity to (re-)enter it;
Persons in rural communities can obtain employment without having to migrate to towns; and
Pensioners can be offered employment opportunities without having to enter into full-time employment.
Additionally, SMIs are another interest group to which teleworking and its ramifications can contribute in terms of supply linkages, enhanced markets, sourcing in skills, information and knowledge, and outsourcing non-core competencies. ‘
For any, or all, of this to become reality, there must be:
Adequate facilities and infrastructure;
A positive social attitude; and
Adequate skills, information and knowledge.
Many of the above recommendations do broadly address these three concerns. However, there are some additional areas to be considered with regards to the SMls, the disabled and women.
Recommendation 8: Establish a call centre to serve SMls
The idea is to have an accessible one-stop clearinghouse for information pertinent to SMls and their needs. Thus, the call centre will need to be linked to an extensive database of the SMls themselves. In addition, it should be able to provide a list of: (1) funding and training programmes available to SMls, (2) sources of supply and skills, (3) potential market opportunities, and (4) other relevant companies that the SMls can network with, etc. While there are existing agencies (for example, SMIDEC – Small and Medium Industries; Development Corporation) serving the SMls, a one-stop call centre can co. ordinate the knowledge-base of these agencies and provide an enhanced level of convenience and information. Such a call centre will likely be a small centre staffed by highly-skilled and knowledgeable agents.
Recommendation 9: Establish an independent agency for the disabled
Currently, there is not even a comprehensive database of the population of disabled in the country. Given the very specific needs of the disabled, not least because of, from field interviews, their lack of even basic education, there is need to establish a separate agency dedicated to addressing those needs. Such an agency should be established through a joint effort by the Ministry of Social Development and National Unity, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Human Resources; but it should be separate from, although answerable to, them.
For a start, such an agency should lobby for the inclusion in building by- laws to provide appropriate access and facilities for the disabled in all public buildings. In addition, this agency should be responsible for ensuring that, under the generic programmes for skills training, special arrangements are included for the training of the disabled.
Finally, ICTs can be an empowering technology for the disabled. However, such specially configured equipment is costly. Thus, there is need to investigate ways of supplying at least institutions serving the disabled with such technology, as well as the establishment of either a loan scheme or grants-in-aid to enable disabled individuals to purchase such equipment.
Most of the physically disabled already have some basic education and skills. With re-training geared towards ICT skills, they could be gainfully employed in a teleworked mode. An incentive scheme should be developed to encourage such re-training and employment.
Recommendation 10: Study reasons for women’s exit from the labour force
With regards to women, there should be a study of the reasons for the major drop in their labour participation rate, at around 30, then the rapid fall-off post-40. The study should also examine the reasons for non-participation, especially among the better-educated. If such behaviour is due to the exercise of choice, then perhaps little can be done to change it other than a cultural shift. On the other hand, if this is due to the absence of facilities for childcare and other responsibilities of domestic work, then the condition for the retention of women in the labour force and for the increased participation is conditional on the provision of such facilities as well as on a cultural shift in the allocation of duties and responsibilities for housework.
The above recommendations have not addressed the issue of the direct promotion of telework per se; rather, they are directed towards the creation of an enabling environment. As noted, telework will be part and parcel of the emerging information economy. Thus, its uptake will occur on the basis of felt need. These recommendations will enable such uptake to occur with relative facility. At the same time, they will also enable those who may be marginalised by developments to re-position themselves for employment in the emerging economy.
Article contributed by Khoo Khay Jin and Cecelia Ng