02/06/2011

Home working: Why can’t everyone telework?

POSTED IN General

Once upon a time teleworking was the future that would free us from the yoke of office life. Armed with phone, computer and internet connection, human potential would blossom in the comfort of our own homes.

It makes sense. Why travel for hours a day to a central location when you can roll out of bed and start working from your kitchen table with none of the hassle and environmental damage that commuting entails?

Home working is certainly on the rise. A survey of firms by the Confederation of British Industry showed that the number offering at least some teleworking rose from 14% in 2006 to 46% in 2008. Figures later this month are expected to show the trend continuing.

British Telecom was one of the pioneers. It began a telework scheme in 1986, and now has 15,000 homeworkers out of 92,000 employees. The company argues that homeworkers save it an average of £6,000 a year each, are 20% more productive and take fewer sick days.

At HSBC 15,000 out of the bank’s 35,000 staff in the UK have the ability to work from home. But that is still less than half the workforce and figures deal only with the means to work from home, they do not indicate full-time home working.

But why isn’t there even more working from home?

Home working doesn’t suit all jobs or sectors. There are some sectors of the UK economy where teleworking is impossible – retailers, manufacturers etc are among those where most people have to be at the workplace. In theory, call centres could allow staff to work from home. In practice, the cost of linking secure databases to thousands of houses stands as a considerable obstacle.

There are potential drawbacks to working from your kitchen or study. For one thing you’re on your own. “It can get a bit lonesome at home and you should eyeball your manager from time to time,” says Cary Cooper, Professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School. “Otherwise without feedback you can drift and lose focus.”

Prof Cooper warns that you may slip down the pecking order if you’re never in the office. Keeping a clear distinction between home and work is also tricky. And what happens if your computer or internet fails? “If the technology goes down then you’re left exposed. Whereas in the office someone will come and fix it.”

For Prof Cooper the answer is to find a happy medium of flexible working, with staff alternating between shifts in the office and at home.

Despite research pointing to higher output from home working, there’s still a perception from some that it amounts to skiving. When many people were forced to work from home across the UK one snowbound day in November, the Jeremy Kyle show was watched by an extra 200,000 viewers. Indeed some people assert they waste as much time with none of the benefits that chatting to colleagues offers.

Guy Bailey, a policy advisor at the CBI, says that while the trend for home working will continue, it’s unlikely to make the office obsolete. “For a large proportion of workers, the demand will always be to work with colleagues. They want somewhere they can bounce ideas off each other and keep things separate from their private life.”

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