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Donkin on Work - Teleworking

September 2007 - Working from home – a matter of choice

Nearly a third of full time employees work from home for some of the time during the month according to research released this week. Chance would be a fine thing, I thought as I digested this snippet in a hotel bedroom in Ulaanbaatar.

The sanctuary of the home office seemed even more remote as my plane was held up on the tarmac for four hours and the luggage unpacked in a security alert. No wonder that the research undertaken by Zurich, the insurer, found that one in 20 people in full time work spend 80 hours working from home during the month.

I would have loved to have been doing the same as I typed up this paragraph in an Irish bar in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport while waiting for a connection. My home office is no more than a few footsteps from the toilet and this particular convenience matters more than anything when you’re fighting a griping tummy.

But you don’t need to know all this because home is a private place. It’s the place where we can tend to our discomforts, handle the domestic agenda, be ill, happy, miserable and downright angry if we wish within our four walls. The office isn’t like that. We’re on display and even the privy isn’t privy enough. Home, on the other hand, is one place where we can retain some control in our lives.

Oddly, that most public and private of conveniences isn’t mentioned in the Zurich research, possibly because the researchers avoided that question. Instead they reveal the trivial finding that eight per cent of the respondents take time during home-working to watch a bit of daytime TV.

They still don’t get it, the people shovelling out these studies. In terms of its proximity to work, television has been sidelined by the internet - the elephant in a growing number of offices and homes. The internet is the great enabler, emancipating work from the office while at the same time creating unbelievably varied sources of distraction.

Focus – the root of nearly all great work – is becoming increasingly difficult as communications technology invades our working lives. In fact a bar room full of chatting flight-passengers is providing an ideal environment for concentrated work.

The point behind any research on home or external working should be to emphasise results. If people are delivering results, if they understand their priorities, their responsibilities and the expectations of their jobs, then it shouldn’t matter a hoot where or when they work.

Home workers now make up some 11 per cent of the total UK workforce, according to figures released earlier this month by the Office of National Statistics. The biggest proportion is among the self employed – people like myself – who comprise 41 per cent of the total.

A much smaller proportion of full-time employees are teleworkers (another name for people working predominantly outside conventional offices). Possibly because of ONS definitions, including people working outdoors, construction contains the most teleworkers with 24 per cent of the total, followed by agriculture (16 per cent) and business, finance and insurance (15 per cent).

So why are people shifting to a form of working that was alien to the experience of most people when I entered the jobs market more than thirty years ago? The answer, I suppose, is because they can. In journalism there was the chance to do “calls from home” earlier in my career. Sometimes a story was dictated down a telephone. In that sense journalism has always been one of those jobs that could be done on the move.

Indeed some jobs, like that of the company representative, were expected to be out on the road and still are. But the office as a base is becoming less important. For those who must maintain close contact with a supervisor the office remains a source of convenience, if only for the boss. But those who are employed on the basis that they can be relied upon to get on with their jobs, particularly if they are experienced enough to understand what is needed of them, are finding they can push the boundary of the workspace.

The Zurich research among more than a thousand telephone respondents found that the most popular reason for home working was avoiding the commute from work (listed by two thirds of those questioned). This is understandable. Avoiding a commute buys me two precious hours every day and saves money in transport costs.

Peace and quiet from colleagues was listed by 55 per cent of people. This too is understandable but rather sad. Office banter and socialising - important in assessing the lie of the land in any workplace - is one of the things I miss most when working from home.

Half of the respondents mentioned freedom to choose working hours. This is vital for women who still shoulder most of the responsibilities in school runs and child care. A lack of distractions also featured highly. Distractions? I love them. The dog barking at the postman, the window cleaner, the delivery vans - I can’t get enough of them. There are times, alone in the house, staring at the bookcase, waiting for the phone to ring, when you could scream. Home working has its darker side which is why those who combine it with regular visits to the office are probably striking the right balance.

Some companies, such as BT, have incorporated home-working in to their business profile, viewing it as a natural progression from the office while benefiting from the cost savings of reduced office space.

But it is the behaviour of individuals, not companies, that has led the changes in home working and teleworking. This is not a movement that has been management-led although managers have often proved willing accomplices. The next steps will continue to be lifestyle-led as people explore the possibilities offered by extended broadband access. The UK now has more than 99 per cent terrestrial broadband coverage, enabling people to balance the desire for remoter living with the needs for periodic business meetings and travel commitments.

The key to this kind of working will be well-organised diaries coupled with the ability to scope out work in to its different component parts – securing projects, collecting and assembling information and delivering finished products.

If you look back long enough you can see it was ever thus. The independent weavers dotted around the north of England in the late 18th century had no desire to forsake their independence. It took a lot of incentives, including the promise of work for wives and children, to lure them in to factories. Others were displaced from common lands. For many, the full-time job was a forced option. Today the old options are re-emerging. It is inevitable that more and more of us are going to seek out their attractions.

See also: Teleworking v commuting

   
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