Go home for a long day at the office

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The Independent Culture
Freedom from tyrannical bosses and petty rules, or a sad, lonely separation from workplace friends and colleagues? Penny Fox finds that working from home can be hard

There are some 3 million self-employed professionals who have set up their office within easy reach of their kitchen, whether it's the spare room, a shed at the bottom of the garden, or a specially converted loft space.

There are as many men as women and among their ranks are architects, accountants, journalists and consultants for almost anything you can think of. What they have in common is technology: screen-centred, modemed, e-mailed, linked to the Net. It's described as the freelance teleworking life and the language of the future: home-based nomads, telecottaging, out-sourcing, portfolio careers.

A new glossy targeted at people working from home or a small office, SoHo Life, will hit the newsstands in early June. Its publisher, Robin Johnson, says that his inspiration for launching the monthly magazine came from the massive array of technology available and the many benefits of working independently: "Flexibility with more control, and an ability to plan your day according to your lifestyle. British Telecom have spent pounds 30m saying 'Why not change the way we work?' SoHo Life is going to show you how."

The benefits of teleworking are numerous: waving goodbye to office politics, bureaucracy and commuting; gains in independence, flexibility and time with the family; choosing the work you want to do. But there is a price to pay: lack of financial cover for pensions, sickness and holidays; the feast-or-famine nature of much freelance work; the lack of company status and structure - and the lack of company.

Cary Cooper, professor of occupational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist) has seen plenty of evidence of the social isolation that can affect the worker from home. "I think it's a problem. We're hearing more and more from psychologists that changes in the nature of work are going to be quite profound in the next millennium: the future will not be office-based work. But people have an overwhelming social need. When they're not getting that social contact we see symptoms: some people get withdrawn, become almost housebound. They avoid the confrontation of other people; they start to get frightened; their social skills go off the boil a bit."

Professor Cooper has observed that the freelance culture produces insecurity, with home workers often making many frantic telephone calls to all sorts of people, creating tele-contacts to establish a social context: "But they want to be eyeball-to-eyeball, not tele-socialising. People who are more gregarious, who have high sociability levels and need to interact with others, are not going to find teleworking satisfying. Others who are task-driven, rather than relationship-driven, will function a heck of a lot better."

The move from being an employee to being self-employed is similar to the transition from child to adult: an organisation sets rules and creates a hierarchy. You have to defer to people in a senior position, and you can become infantilised. When you're self-employed, suddenly there are no rules ... There are no bosses, just clients. You have to be a grown-up.

For some, the transition is hard and depression can set in along with social isolation. Symptoms follow: headaches; endless minor colds; difficulties in sleeping and concentrating; greater aggressiveness and anxiety; too much coffee or alcohol.

We may not like company rules, but the social side of office life and the demands placed on us daily by working relationships give us a wider dimension and another context to be ourselves in. The identity that work gives us, supported by peers and group membership, provides a sense of power and self-respect that is often not available through other activities. The cushions of company life - PAYE, company cars, pension and insurance schemes - take away some of the responsibilities that otherwise fall solidly on to the loaded, aching shoulders of the self-employed.

The people who pronounce themselves happiest with self-employment tend to be those who don't do it full time. They have some structure from part- time employment, and at other times the freedom to do more of what they choose. Professor Cooper would like to see the development of more flexible work practices but is concerned about our ability to cope healthily: "The future is likely to be partly office, partly home. The technology is certainly there, but is the social technology around? Not at the moment."

Ten top tips for teleworkers

1. Discipline: put in place a set of rules and routines.

2. Money: create a strong relationship with your bank manager, accountant and financial adviser.

3. Work: learn to say no to work you don't want to do.

4. Work: if you're overloaded, contact clients and try to move deadlines.

5. Work: if you haven't got any, give yourself a structured break before launching back into sales mode.

6. Work: vary the types of work that you do and network with others in your field.

7. Social: make contact with other people in your area to break up the day.

8. Social: variety is important: spend time with people you don't like, not just with those who reinforce your own prejudices.

9. Social: take advantage of being in your area by getting involved with local organised activities or voluntary work.

10. Social and work: try to have meetings with clients. If the isolation is too great, consider renting an office away from home, sharing it with other self-employed people.

'My brain began to atrophy'

Heather Bayer became a 'sole trader' in management consultancy three years ago. She was 40 years old, married, with two children, and had previously been employed for eight years in the customer service division of a large company

"It was really the idea of working from home that seemed so attractive, and the thought of being master of my own destiny. But it was like jumping off a mountain and hoping the parachute would open. I had no clear plans: I had a few contacts and, in retrospect, I should have had many more before taking the leap. It was difficult to keep the work going and make new contacts. Word of mouth created more work but it was a struggle.

"Sometimes the planning and control fell apart. I had to set my own goals and objectives and there was nobody to give me feedback. There were times when I accepted far too much work and didn't plan how I would carry it out effectively. Too much work, and I would worry about letting people down; too little, and you worry about where the money is going to come from. Achieving the right balance was difficult.

"I tend to leave everything to the last minute and work in panic mode, but working on your own doesn't lend itself to that sort of approach: you need to be structured. I started to get physical symptoms: my shoulder and neck muscles seized up, I was generally irritable and the family bore the brunt of any tension. You can't allow yourself to fall ill, you just have to work through it - and I think my health probably suffered. I ate hugely and probably put on a stone in weight because the fridge was there; and you don't get any exercise when you work at home. I found the lack of social contact really difficult and would spend hours on the phone just to have contact with people. My brain began to atrophy.

"For the business to carry on, I felt that having an office I could go to every day would achieve a number of outcomes: separating work from home and giving me a discipline. And if the business was to move forward, I was going to have to employ somebody full time. Five months ago I moved to our office. It's two-and-a-half miles from home and I now get some exercise either cycling or walking to work. I employ two staff and run a busy office specialising in business skills training. Working from home wasn't as much fun as I thought it would be; having the office has made it all much easier to cope with. It's probably the best move I made since leaving full-time employment."

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