Mixing cows & co-workers: a telecommuter's tale

When he's not mustering cattle, Vaughn Klein manages a 12-person sales team over the internet - meet the new breed of Australian teleworker. 

The town of Wellington in central western NSW has experienced the largest population decline in the state, according to the latest census data.

While traditional jobs and their workers have been disconnected here, others have been plugged in.

Vaughn Klein lives on an 800 hectare cattle property outside town.

In between mustering several hundred cattle and three young kids, he manages a 12-person sales team using high-speed broadband internet and video.

"We're heavy users of video technology because it enables me to see people wherever they are. I look after a team that is dispersed around Australia and I can keep in contact with them just like I was sitting in the office with them," he said.

Mr Klein grew up in the district but moved to Sydney to improve his employment prospects.

He now works for telecommunications firm CISCO Systems.

Two years ago he convinced his wife, Emmah, to bring their young family back to live on a property adjacent to one owned by his elderly parents.

With his kids on his lap he works full-time to help drive a $200 million telecommunications project.

"I love the variability of chasing cows and digging holes and then working in an environment that is high pressure, that's exactly like being in the office. One provides relief from the other," he said.

"I am now, as a result of getting work-life balance as a heavy telecommuter, doing better and performing better. I'm a better employee because of the flexibility that's provided to me, not worse."

It's a compelling balance for young working families, especially those faced with isolation – though there are drawbacks.

"I went into the office last week and my chair was missing, so was my stapler, it had been that long that people has assumed that I was no longer working there and so I was getting my stuff taken.”


It's telework pioneers like Mr Klein the Federal Government hopes will drive the redistribution of skilled workers in Australia.

The department of Boradbacn Communication and Digital Economy aims to have 12 per cent of the Australian workforce teleworking by 2020.

That's double the current figure and nearer to the labour market leaders, the US and the EU.

It's obvious, then, that telework is being used as a marquee example of what can be done on the multi-billion dollar National Broadband Network.

National Telework Week is designed to get employers and employees considering their options, with a series of events and online tools enabling both to weigh the costs, opportunities and challenges.


Occupational psychologist Dr Peter Cotton says not everyone is suited to teleworking.

He consults to Commonwealth agencies and private workplaces on telework practices.

"I know NBN Co is very keen to promote , I think a lot of organisations I work with are supportive of it, I think it's certainly part of the mix but I think it's less satisfactory if it's an exclusive way of working for many people," he said.

In fact, he says some teleworkers might be overlooked for promotion due to a residual culture of visibility in the workplace.

"It wouldn't surprise me if people who work in the teleworld are achieving less promotion," he said.

Dr Cotton says that telework will may never be a complete replacement for face-to-face contact with co-workers.

"Look, it's possible but it's less desirable. I think human beings are social animals by nature. I think they do thrive in that social contact,” he said.

“Teams can definitely achieve more than a bunch of individuals working in isolation. There's something about working collaboratively, something about bouncing off each other, something about the collective coming together, problem solving issues and spurring each other on.”

In fact, in his work as consulting workplaces on telework practices, he has seen cases where telework has failed.

"I have dealt with individuals, in say the Commonwealth agencies, who have increased their work from home and have really struggled in terms of a little bit of self-discipline, in terms of maintaining output and putting in place boundaries around their work and personal life."

That separation is a key divider in successful teleworking practices.

"I come across people who sort of blur the boundaries and end up at the dinner table with the family while they are staring at a document. They've got half their face in a computer screen while they're are trying to do the ironing etcetera, so you've got to structure your time," he said.



On Sydney's lower North Shore, Meshlin Khouri is getting her two boys and husband ready for the day.

But the communications manager for KPMG will work from home, despite it being only eight kilometres away.

"A lot of organisations are now focusing on productivity rather than presence in the work place, most organisations are able to get past that - the person in the office and sitting their desk by 9am,” she said.

“It's about the quality of work that's being produced here."

Mrs Khouri says that telework can be suited to specific work tasks, for example focusing on one task without interruptions or working on confidential material that she is unable to do in a modern open-plan office.

“It allows me quiet time where I can get large amount of work done. It's actually not about the commute at all. It's about the environment that working from home affords me,” she said.

It seems like an attitude that both employers and employees need to consider carefully.

"I think it requires discipline, and that discipline is provided by my wife," Vaughn Klein laughs.

Even for those working from home hundreds of kilometres from the office, there's always someone looking over your shoulder.

Source: SBS