Free, or just under remote control?

How is working from home affecting people's lives?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
What exactly do teleworkers do? Whatever it is, they do it quietly and in isolation, and so are not easy to spot. The best way to track them down is in the dead of night, on the Internet. The Independent carried out a survey by putting an explora tory posting on a newsgroup to try to bring a few out of hiding.

There was a flood of responses, the majority from people who create or fix computer software, and most of them were men. But this may not be a true representation of the1.27 million teleworkers (according to a 1993 EU paper) in the UK. It is more likely to be an inevitable outcome, given that Internet newsgroups - on-line discussion areas for people to exchange views on subjects of shared interest via their PCs and modems - are notoriously the haunts of computer nerds. Rest assured, other professions are joining the teleworking club.

One of the most surprising respondents was David Shaw, MP for Dover and Deal, who sent reams of information about Parliament's position regarding the Internet. Many early claims from MPs of participation in the communications revolution have been hollow attempts to hide their ignorance; Mr Shaw, however, uses e-mail for dealing with correspondence from his constituents and within Parliament. And this article has been researched entirely through the Internet and delivered by e-mail: not a single face-to-face exchange has occurred.

The main form of teleworking is probably "tacit" teleworking, of which Leo is an example - employed permanently by his company but working almost entirely off the premises. His situation arose after his employer relocated; it was possible because his work is totally computer orientated. Good communication facilities are essential. Without an Internet link with his company's offices, he says, his work would be hampered by excessive delays.

Similarly Ian (not his real name) worked, until recently, as a full-time software programmer from home for a specialist security software house. Teleworking can be a good arrangement for employers. Ian was paid less during his first year of teleworking for the privelege of not being on site, although by the end of his two-year stint he was on higher rates than the on-site programmers because of the improved quality of his work. As he said: "Teleworkers have to come up with the goods. It's the only way anyone can tell they are working." Companies can save a lot on the cost of office space and overheads if their workers are home-based.

What is the appeal for teleworkers, apart from being able to get out of bed when they want? All cited flexibility and lack of interruptions as prime advantages, followed closely by quality of life. Those with families relished the ability to spend daylight hours with their children; all appreciated the elimination of rush-hour commuting. The finer details can be just as important: working outside in good weather, or not having to wear a suit.

Not all teleworkers are happy. Jeff (not his real name) is a programmer for a Fortune 500 company in the US. He says North American multinationals are greatly in favour of "phoning it in" - but there are greater expectations from his employer because of the flexibility. In a busy stretch he will work from 9am until midnight: his Christmas "break" included four 15-hour days. Companies are delighted by the willingness of staff to run long test-jobs from home while the rest of the family watches TV. Jeff puts the increasing pressure down to severe staff cutbacks, but another, more ominous, interpretation is that staff cutbacks have followed the success of home-working.

Other drawbacks include higher domestic power costs and the absence of an immediate work community. These also apply to self-employed teleworkers. Ray (not his real name) is a consultant working within an association of computer professionals. Distributed widely around the UK, they come together over the Internet to work as a team on large software projects, relying on e-mail to exchange information with each other and with their clients. Ray believes it would not be possible to take on such projects without the Internet.

Nick de Smith designs and troubleshoots systems software from outbuildings on his property. His degree in electronics has enabled him to instal an impressive set of communication facilities: Internet, ISDN, an X.25 packet switching system and modem lines. "We have a Category 5 UTP network under the lawn," he writes (that's "unshielded twisted pair", for the uninitiated), "and the whole house is wired with data points ... I can work on several problems simultaneously, even from our bedroom in the middle ofthe night ... it's the way the world is going." His facilities mean he can provide instant on-the-job fixes without having to get out of his seat, a clear advantage over competitors without remote access.

For Nick the benefits of being self-employed at home are significant. Like the others, he appreciates the variety, the autonomy and the freedom to spend valuable time with his family and to live wherever he chooses (currently in remote and beautiful countryside.)

The drawbacks of self-employed teleworking may seem more pronounced than for tacit teleworking: many struggle against the temptation to work excessive hours, and setting-up costs and expensive insurance must be borne personally. But the overall response was positive, total control and autonomy being major bonuses.

National Association of Teleworkers, 01761 413869; Telecottage Association, 01298 84981.

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