1994 - Teleworking v commuting
The disruption to Britain's railways
by striking signalling staff seems as good an
excuse as any to take a fresh look at the merits
of teleworking .
It may be that this form of employment
comprises part of your working week already. A
Department of Employment study in February found
that one in 10 employers had at least one home-based
worker and BT has estimated that by 1995 2.25m
people will be working from home three days or
more a week in the UK.
For the rest of us, it is perhaps
one of those employment ideas that has been shelved
in the rainy day file to be pulled out, dusted
down and re-examined with the toast and marmalade
as we face the prospect of lengthy traffic queues
on the way to work.
The idea of teleworking is nothing
new. The advent of the personal computer, modem
and the Fax machine make working from home, in
theory, a far more feasible proposition.
Information technlogy developments
accompanied by greater availability, quality,
reliability and cheaper prices have led to increasing
numbers of employees often deciding that there
are different ways to organise their workloads.
Noel Hodson, director of Strategic
Workstyles 2000, an Oxford-based teleworking consultancy,
has studied the prevalence of what he terms 'tacit
teleworking' , where it has been adopted almost
unconsciously by employees outside the policies
of their employers.
When he investigated teleworking
at the World Bank headquarters in Washington he
was informed by its personnel department that
it did not exist there. An inquiry among information
technology specialists however, revealed they
had established communications links for 1,000
teleworkers a day.
'This meant that the equivalent
of 240,000 man-days a year were being worked outside
formal systems. The personnel people were rather
cross when they found out,' says Hodson.
The spread of tacit teleworking
is such that some organisations are unclear how
many of their employees are what might be termed
'in station' at any one time. Dr Frank Becker
at Cornell University carried out a survey of
empty desks in a number of companies and found
70 per cent unstaffed in some offices.
Teleworking often evolves naturally
but it is sometimes triggered by an outside event.
Within hours of the Los Angeles earthquake last
year, thousands of telephone lines were being
installed in peripheral offices allowing people
to work outside the city. In the UK, the immediate
stimulus may be transport problems caused by industrial
action but high office rents have also driven
Digital, the US-based computer
company, began introducing teleworking among its
employees six years ago: now 40 per cent of its
4,000 UK workforce have modems or similar links
for using personal computers and other communications
equipment from home.
The latest stage in developing
the concept involved closing down Digital's Newmarket
office in April. The office, which used to accommodate
100 people, was replaced with a small tele-centre
manned by nine staff and supporting 80 people
working around it.
In-coming telephone calls are
taken by the Newmarket or Welling offices and
re-routed to people's homes without the caller
knowing that they are speaking to anyone outside
an ordinary office.
Ian Christie, Digital's marketing
manager for flexible work services, said the reorganisation
was saving the company about a third of a million
pounds a year on direct property costs and running
'Generally speaking the response
has been very positive but it must be said that
we have very few people who work five days a week
from home. It is part of managers' responsibilities
to have regular team meetings for which a three-line
whip is essential,' he says.
Teleworking has been criticised
for divorcing employees from their normal social
contact in the office but Christie argues that
it can create greater contact if people ensure
that they do not isolate themselves. 'Instead
of meeting the same faces around the coffee machine
you make a much broader social circle.'
Christie says he often choses
to work at Digital's head office in Reading deliberately
to pick up those unexpected contacts or jobs that
tend to materialise in the conventional office.
Noel Hodson believes there is
a powerful economic argument for teleworking .
He says that 18 per cent of all office time, the
equivalent of almost a full working day, is taken
up with office politics. Moreover, the time saved
that would be normally spent commuting can be
utilised for work.
He says: 'I used to spend four
hours a day commuting from my home in Oxford to
north London. That was the equivalent to half
a working year.'
Hodson adds that the momentum
for teleworking has grown markedly in the past
year. He has just completed some research which
concludes that teleworking is going to increase
the number of jobs by promoting what he calls
the '24-hour society', already happening among
some telephone sales organisations unrestricted
by normal office hours. He estimates that equipping
Europe with an 'information super highway' adopting
Integrated Services Digital Network lines - high
quality computer links - and optic fibres allowing
speedy computer communications will create 3m
jobs, although many of these may be outside Europe
A Henley Centre for Forecasting
study suggested that 50 per cent of UK jobs overall
could be teleworked and predicted that 15 per
cent of all work could be sourced from home by
the end of the century, equivalent to 3.3m jobs.
These predictions may turn out
to be over-enthusiastic because of the inherent
resistance to working from home among many people
and indeed some companies.
These seem manifest in a number
of anxieties. There is an innate desire to be
seen to be there and doing something. We dare
not be away. It may not be an idle fear. Reading
the other day about purges instigated by Mao Zedong
during the Cultural Revolution it was noticeable
how many party officials were denounced simply
because they were absent at the time of meetings
to discuss potential recalcitrants. Corporate
Britain may feel far removed from this but office
plotting is not unknown.
So teleworking takes a certain
hardiness and confidence. Why not try it? If you're
stuck at home, strike-bound and haven't planned
your day beforehand, it is probably already too
late to maximise your time outside work. Hodson
suggests an action plan for setting up a teleworking
Prepare two days work with all the files
and stationary you need.
Organise a work area and make it clear to
your family that this isn't a day off.
Circulate telephone and Fax numbers and agree
how often you need to stay in touch.
Managers, he says, should ensure
that not everyone is outside the office and should
afterwards review the benefits of part-time teleworking
for the company.
There is a downside to teleworking
among people who find it difficult to draw the
line between work and home life. Parents find
it hard to explain that they are not always available
to their children.
Often there is also a tendency
for people who cannot let go of their work to
do too much. If you don't fit that description
you might take another tip: turn the sound down
on the TV when when you answer the telephone.
The echo of tennis balls has a distinctive resonance.
For more information: Teleworking
Explained by Noel Hodson, published by Wiley and
Sons, price £25.
© 1994 The Financial Times
Ltd. All rights reserved
as a pdf file