Smart Moves: Flexible, stay-at-home staff who control their working day

Rachelle Thackray on the success of an emloyment agency's home teleworking scheme
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The Independent Online
GRAEME Lewis, sales director at Adecco Alfred Marks, is delighted with the success of his latest initiative - group teleworking. He is even more delighted that his own family life has been enhanced by such a style of working; it was his wife, Elva, who set up the first Adecco "home-based support team" three years ago with a group of like-minded mothers, and it was the success of that venture which paved the way for a growing number of teleworkers around the country.

The concept, which involves several people working from their own PCs at home on one project, combines old-fashioned teamwork and joint responsibility with the newly-fashionable culture of flexibility and easy-fit childcare. It's alluring, particularly for parents who want to work around their children's needs. The group of mothers who met daily at the gates of a small school in Bedfordshire certainly thought so, after one of their number, Elva Lewis, a former Harrods buyer, collaborated with her husband and urged them to take responsibility for producing a quarterly Hot 100 report for his company.

"The priority for my wife was to be able to pick up the children at the school gates at 3pm, but there were few flexible job opportunities to enable her to do that," explains Mr Lewis. "We had a particular function at Adecco Alfred Marks that I felt could lend itself to be outsourced to workers with complimentary skills. It required a database to be created, and then be managed. It's a mixture of management and data entry."

Working from home on PCs, the group uses diverse skills; one, Sue Manning, was a programmer before starting a family and was funded through an access course before being enlisted to design the database. Another, an ex-solicitor, checks legal matters arising from the report, while a former saleswoman handles communications for the network.

The mothers were initially sceptical, according to Mr Lewis. "There was a reluctance to take ownership. The only thing you do have is trust, and the element you have to give to the outworkers has to be task- and outcome-oriented." The advantages of the arrangement soon became apparent: it was highly flexible. Although the company wanted its reports in quarterly, it was up to group members to define when the deadlines would fall, thus avoiding times such as holidays. "They organised it to suit them, because it didn't matter to us when it was, as long as it was regular," says Mr Lewis.

Having a group of peers working together reduces isolation, and improves communication without a formal office environment - and expense - to consider. The group is responsible for collaborating to take on extra staff, if necessary. It is a relaxed, word-of-mouth recruitment technique, and work pressure can be intensified or lessened as it suits.

The drawbacks are that the work is often menial, as Mr Lewis admits of other home-based teams which have followed his wife's initiative. "Quite often we need location-matching done. Prior to outsourcing, we were paying salespeople to spend hours doing it. More recently, people have been working at it from home, and once people see they can do it as a group, it opens their minds to the possibilities. These are intelligent people who are committed," he says.

With 240 branches dealing with 77,000 customers, Adecco Alfred Marks sees the teleworking market as a rich seam to exploit; it is encouraging firms to consider outsourcing their functions to the company's workers. "Some managements are thinking of virtual organisations," says Mr Lewis, who believes the flexible system could benefit workers such as single parents.

He believes the tendency to work from home will mushroom. "We were determined to make it a success, and it was in the context of how we wanted to work globally. We have started a situation which has spawned others. People feel part of something instead of being dumped on. Recruiting and retaining people is not a problem, which in this day and age is quite something."

For more details about home-based support teams, telephone Adecco Alfred Marks on 0181 207 5000. 'Managing the Flexible Workforce' costs pounds 40 and is available from 01293 854038.