2003 - Home working
How would you react after landing
a job if your new boss showed you the door and
told you not to come back? It is hardly the welcome
you might expect - unless you are destined to
be a home-worker.
The first day in a conventional
office is supposed to be a rite of passage: you
meet all those new faces and find your way to
the coffee machine, the toilets and the stationery
Could this ritual become a thing
of the past? The concept of what Gina Vega, author
and US management academic, calls "recruiting
to go home" in a new book* has underpinned
the home-working programmes of Putnam Investments.
Putnam, a Massachusetts-based asset management
and investment business, has become so committed
to the business benefits of home-working that
today it employs about 10 per cent of its workforce
In the UK, British Telecommunications
has also made significant inroads into institutionalising
home-working. Five years ago, under what it calls
its "freedom to work" initiative, BT
launched an experiment, allowing about 600 employees
to design their own working patterns. The idea
has spread, so that today some 6,000 of its employees
are working from home, producing a one-off saving
of Pounds 36m in office costs for BT and millions
of pounds in reduced fuel costs for the rest of
The savings at AT & T, one
of the largest employers of teleworkers in the
US, have been even greater, enabling the company
to halve its office space costs during the 1990s.
Yet for all the interest in teleworking
since Jack Nilles, a rocket scientist, coined
the phrase in the 1970s when looking at ways to
alleviate California's transport problems, such
programmes remain exceptional. Teleworking is
happening, usually informally, but most people
remain wedded to their offices.
Offices have become such a dominant
feature of working life that we tend to take them
for granted. The success of The Office, the BBC
television sitcom, came partly from our recognition
of the banality of office life. So why does office-based
work endure when the technology exists to disperse
big chunks of work to people's homes?
Ms Vega suggests that many homeworkers
become over-zealous about the need to stay in
touch in order to counter "the enduring image
of the dishevelled worker in bunny slippers casually
sipping coffee while the 'real' workers slave
away in the office".
I work from home and my biggest
issue is not guilt but isolation. Working from
home has many advantages - not least the bunny
slippers - but it can also be quite dull. I cannot
say I miss the daily commute but I do miss the
office banter and the opportunity to spark off
others. The postman still brings surprises but
the home is never going to replicate the kind
of atmosphere that would be generated in Pixar,
the US animation studios, or Skunk Works, the
aerospace development operation.
Yet the average workplace does
not create this atmosphere either. According to
research published by Aon Consulting**, levels
of employee commitment in the UK have declined
year on year for the past four years and continue
to trail behind those shown in the US. British
workers register commitment levels well below
those of their US counterparts. Some of this can
be put down to British reserve contrasting with
US-style exuberance, but not all of it.
"We're seeing a lack of
leadership in the UK with less focus on the softer
issues such as communications and people skills.
I think the US has naturally better leaders than
the UK," says Craig Lydiate, Aon Consulting's
director of organisational measurement.
But leadership may not be the
only answer to workplace malaise. Employee dissatisfaction
is not confined to the UK, according to an international
survey of 3,000 executives carried out by Korn/Ferry
International, the headhunting and recruitment
company. Most respondents were unimpressed by
the way their employers had been handling the
downturn of the past three years and almost all
of them were planning to move on.
Since this was a survey of executives
registered with ekornferry.com, a candidate database,
this is hardly surprising. But, added to the Aon
research, it does reinforce the impression that
many traditional workplaces are failing to fulfil
the aspirations of employees.
I was hoping, therefore, to draw
some comfort from the idea of teleworking as the
shape of things to come. But Ms Vega paints a
potentially bleak picture of social isolation.
In the workplace, she writes, isolation can be
compensated for by the trappings of status such
as the corner office (the favourite refuge of
the boss) and the key to the executive washroom.
But homeworkers have few such status props.
People whose work depends on
technology, says Ms Vega, can generate "hard
drive envy" if their computer has a bigger
capacity than that of a colleague. But people
who are working off site, she writes, may be using
their own equipment or "corporate cast-offs",
leading to marginalisation. The unseen worker,
she argues, not only is suffering from creeping
technical obsolescence but is also devoid of "personal
advertising". The result is diminished status,
feelings of loneliness and personal isolation.
"I believe strongly that
telework will remain a minority source of occupation,
increasing during a strong economy and decreasing
when labour markets permit," says Ms Vega.
"I believe it is a viable means of employment
and a healthy work environment for some, but surely
not for the majority."
She is right to point out that
teleworking should not be viewed as an easy option.
I wonder, however, whether she has underestimated
its growth potential. Yes, the office is a social
environment - but so is home when you can share
it with your family.
The original concentration of
people in central workplaces was not undertaken
for the sake of social cohesion but for economies
of scale, often associated with a single convenient
power source or a trading or supply outlet and
sometimes associated with production secrecy.
Some of these factors remain
important. However, now that information flows
can be regulated and monitored outside a central
office, do we still need so much office space?
Or are we restrained from change by nothing more
than force of habit?
*Managing teleworkers and
telecommuting strategies, by Gina Vega, published
by Praeger, £ 38.75 ($59.95)
** [email protected] survey, published
by Aon Consulting. Copies from [email protected]
as a pdf file