Fast Track: There's no place like home

Had your fill of the office? It's time to look at the alternatives.
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The Independent Culture
JUSTIN SOMPER, a 29-year old book publisher, dreamed of setting up his own business. So last July, he decided to take the plunge. With a thriving media and communications consultancy now run from his front room, it was - he says - the best decision he's ever made.

Justin is one of a fast-growing number of graduate homeworkers. In fact, the number of individuals working from home in the UK is now an estimated five million. A quarter of those are remote, housebound employees of larger companies, but the vast majority are independent business people like Justin.

A recent survey by Mitel reveals homeworkers enjoy greater job flexibility, a better balance between work and home, savings on commuting time and money, and an overall better lifestyle. The one major problem is isolation.

More than three-quarters of respondents to the Mitel survey agree. Stephen Gaymer, who has been working as a freelance desktop publisher for 10 years, explains who he misses: "It's the people who get on your nerves, like the sweepstakes on Grand National Day, the bloke who brings round the sandwiches, the post-match football discussions - who you didn't think you'd miss."

In an attempt to regenerate some of that lost camaraderie for himself, Gaymer placed an ad in the local freesheet where he lives, in Blewbury, Oxfordshire. About a dozen people responded and joined him for a drink at the Red Lion pub in the village. Regular monthly lunches and Christmas parties followed - and HomeAloners was born. The organisation, which celebrated its third birthday in May, now numbers more than 50, and has launched a satellite group.

Gaymer would like to see HomeAloners expand to other parts of Britain, and has launched a website and compiled an information pack for people interested in setting up groups in their area. The key, he says, is to have a core of 20 to 30 people, with at least a dozen souls you can always rely on to show up. "Otherwise, it's like having a party every month and wondering if anyone's going to turn up," he warns.

The concept of strength in numbers also lies behind the UK's largest homeworkers organisation, the Home Business Alliance (HBA). Founded in 1994, it now claims to have more than 15,000 members across the country. Membership benefits include a credit union, free legal and financial helplines, a monthly newsletter, and a range of discounts on products and services. The Alliance also acts as a lobbying force for homeworkers' rights in the UK and Europe, and has organised a regional roadshow of exhibitions and seminars that starts in Edinburgh in October.

Unlike HomeAloners, however, the HBA is not strong on socialising. According to chairman Len Tondel, members seem to be more interested in gaining tangible business advantages than meeting peers. In fact, Tondel claims, homeworkers need not be lonely at all. "If you're doing your job and networking properly, you won't be isolated," he says.

Somper has learned that this can be true. "I can remember my first week at home," he says. "I had to either set up lots of meetings so I had somewhere to go... so that I had a bit of structure to my day." Now, though, he is so tied up with meetings, phone calls and other errands throughout the week, he values what little time he has on his own. "It's not as if I'm just shut up in a room, tapping away at a computer, all day every day," he says. Potential homeworkers, take heart.

HomeAloners, 01235 851065, or e-mail

Home Business Alliance is offering a 30-day free trial membership: 01945 463303/