Teleworking shunned as office life gets the thumbs-up

Working at home has not taken off in the way that was expected. By Rachelle Thackray
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FANCY getting up at ten, sauntering into your study for a bit of light work, drinking coffee in the garden as you read yesterday's brief, and then perhaps calling the office in the afternoon to update yourself on events in the City?

While teleworking - otherwise known as working from home - sounds appealing to everyone but the most hardened lover of the office life, new research shows why it hasn't caught on in the way everyone predicted it would. Despite a survey by BT showing that three-quarters of organisations with more than 1,000 employees now have flexible working arrangements in place, the shift to wholesale teleworking has been slight.

Dr Yehuda Baruch, of the University of East Anglia's School of Management, has identified four factors which affect whether a teleworker can adapt to a wholly new working style. After interviewing 62 people, teleworking full-time and part-time in fields from insurance to accountancy, Dr Baruch concludes: "For the majority of the workforce, the combination of these factors work against them to ensure teleworking is unlikely to be a success. For the majority of the population, it won't work."

The first problem you might encounter is your working environment at home. Not everyone has their own workspace, and for those with families, there may be more distractions than incentives to work. Secondly, the job itself may not be conducive to isolation. "In some jobs, like driving a taxi, you can't telework; in others, the technology is still not quite good enough," says Dr Baruch.

Thirdly, however alluring teleworking sounds, some workers are quite content to commute because they want to keep up with office colleagues and events; self-discipline can also be a problem. The fourth element is the nature of the organisation. "You need a culture of trust in which people are judged by results. Not enough organisations have yet made that swap from being old-fashioned, controlling and power-related," says Dr Baruch. "You find it is not enough to have a good home-work interface; you must have all four elements, with the overlap." Nevertheless, for some employees it can be the best option of all - taken in moderation.

Dr Baruch found that those who worked at home in peace and quiet for two or three days a week were often the happiest, best-adjusted employees. "If you have a car production manager, it could be a good idea if you take one day working from home and preparing the production plan for the coming month."

He found that those companies which had introduced teleworking as a policy often stumbled because they had not examined the interface in close enough detail, or wanted to avoid expense. "Companies want to get the best out of people, but in too many cases they are doing it for the wrong reasons. I had somebody asking me how they could save space swapping to teleworking - I don't believe that should be the main motive to seek change."

The BT survey found that flexible working arrangements were mostly informal, but 18 per cent of organisations who responded said they would introduce a formal written scheme within the next five years. While just 16 per cent of employees in companies of more than 50 workers now telework regularly, that figure will rise to 37 per cent by 2003.

Dr Baruch, who is also studying teleworking trends in the Far East, acknowledges that while it may be the best option for the few, it should be introduced with caution. "I work from home, and I enjoy it; I believe in the personal touch but on the other hand, when I need to concentrate, I can't do it in my office with students around.

"But too often people enter teleworking for the wrong reasons - to escape commuting or because of family demands, without thinking whether they are personally suited to working from home," he said.

For more information on the research, conducted in association with Sun Life Assurance, telephone UEA on (01603) 592203.