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Donkin on Work - Teleworking

December 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 cupboard.

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 as teleworkers.

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 society.

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]

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