book review: Still a far cry from the dream office

Forget the telecottage. Teleworking is likely to remain a low- wage pursuit, writes Paul Gosling
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The wisteria-clad thatched cottage with a computer and desk in the upstairs spare bedroom may be some people's dream of teleworking. But it is a long way from reality, according to Andrew Bibby whose book, Teleworking: thirteen journeys to the future of work, has just been published.

More commonly, if you accept Bibby's definition of teleworking as "distance working using information and communication technologies", it is a bank transferring its data processing to some anonymous industrial estate, where property and labour costs are cheaper than in the city centres. Or it is a hotel chain centralising its reservations system in Cork for the whole of Europe. Or it is an office in Forres, north-east Scotland, processing parking tickets issued in Tower Hamlets, London. Hoskyns, the company involved, reckons labour costs are half those in the capital.

It is obvious that a telecommunications revolution is taking place around us, but its repercussions are not quite what has been predicted. According to Bibby it may be some decades before managers are willing to let go their control of working environments - and until they do the office, not the garret, will remain the hub of teleworking.

It does not need to be like this, as British Telecom has shown. British Telecom is a participant in the teleworking experiment with a vested interest in seeing it succeed. BT's 152 phone-line sales staff in Southampton were given the option last year of working from home, and productivity has increased as a result. Away from the distractions of an office more work gets done, and operators working from home have higher sales targets to meet.

But the overall picture of teleworking is of low-waged work - pounds 2 an hour or less. Most of it is data processing by self-employed women based in suburbia, deprived of the social and material benefits of conventional employment. Hardly the romantic step forward we were promised.

Nor do telecottages - shared "office" space in a rural area - appear to present a long-term, viable solution. A recent survey shows that of the 60 telecottages that replied, out of more than 100 in Britain, only one in seven is financially viable. If they have a future, it is more likely as local authority-subsidised training centres than as independent business units. After all, why rent an office when what you need can be fitted into the back bedroom?

Andrew Bibby's book launch took place in BT's high-tech centre in central London, where video-conferencing links were booked with the European Commission offices in Brussels and a remote telecottage in rural Ireland. The aim was to show that distance was irrelevant to the future of work; even the nuances of facial expression would be perfectly broadcast. Alas the link failed, and reliable old-fashioned phones were used. Perhaps for the time being the new world will not be so different from the old one.

'Teleworking: thirteen journeys to the future of work', by Andrew Bibby, published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, at pounds 6.95.