IT contracting: Teleworkers are home and dry

Talented computer workers are staying away from the office. By Lynne Curry
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In an unironed T-shirt, with two dogs for company, Ian Fazakerley sits by an open window admitting gentle wafts of Cotswolds air. Radio 4 is on. This is Harvik Solutions Ltd at work.

While Birmingham City Council considers whether to move some of its 7,000 office-based staff home, Mr Fazakerley is already working on computer programs for local authorities in England and Wales from his first-floor workroom in a village near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.

After being made redundant twice - once on Christmas Eve - and building up a network of acquaintances with their own specialities, Mr Fazakerley has become part of the vanguard of workers who rarely spend a day in an office.

Most of his projects are designing custom software programmes, and his client base has been built up through word of mouth.

"I don't do any advertising whatsoever, although I think commercial awareness is probably as important as programming skills," he says. "I don't talk about Unix drivers; I ask what the problems are and try to come up with solutions."

Local authority work forms about 25 per cent of his income and is growing. He also works in partnership with a data management company and has developed a legal off-the-shelf package in a joint project.

He says the lack of business trappings is irrelevant.

"They could get a large outfit that's cumbersome and slow, but we're quick on our feet and they feel comfortable with a one-man band. The idea of having a reception area with a couple of potted palms cuts no ice at all."

IT specialists have been perfectly placed to lead the move to home-working. They have no fear of the technology that drives it, and are capable of overcoming communications software problems.

They are also on the crest of a wave, with demand for their skills exceeding supply, and, as Steve Simmons, a flexible working expert, observes, once rates reach a certain level, conditions come under scrutiny. Working in comfort, without a harassed journey or the constraints of an unpleasant office, with rules dictated by someone else, become high priorities.

Analyst/programmers feature heavily in the membership of the National Association of Teleworkers, which Mr Simmons chairs. He runs a consultancy in "microbusiness", teleworking from home in Penzance, Cornwall.

"Computer people are well qualified to work from home, because of the rather high intellectual content of their work and its formulaic and mechanistic nature," he says.

He adds that there is currently a shortage of computer workers, so they have the advantage.

"The first thing that happens in times like these is that rates are pushed up, but people aren't half as greedy as is generally believed and rates quite quickly reach a level they're happy with," he says.

"Then they start looking at conditions. That includes more holidays, and it also includes working from home, which tends to enhance their quality of life.

"It may not be that they especially like working at home; it's just that they don't like working in someone else's cruddy little office.

"Increasingly, travel is also a problem, and part of the whole shtick of things people won't accept any more, which can come down even to uncomfortable furniture."

There are no definitive figures on how many IT programmers are working from home, but teleworking is certainly on the rise. Mercury's IT staff are among them. "Working from home is a normal way of working with Mercury," says Chris Ridgewell, who manages its flexible working arrangements. "It is increasing formally and informally."

All 35,000 staff at Mercury are computer-literate; more than 3,000 work from home at least twice a week, linking with "base" either through Apple or IBM systems.

Reed Personnel Services, which has a specialist computing division, found in a recent survey that the number of organisations employing teleworkers had more than doubled since 1993.

Reed conducted the survey with the Home Office Partnership, an independent consulting and development organisation specialising in introducing new ways of working using IT.

Birmingham City Council was one of HOP's study group of local authorities, which also included Cambridgeshire, West Sussex, Hertfordshire, Fife and Wiltshire.

Ian Fazakerley, whose wife still goes out to work, is surrounded by IT openings in the "golden triangle" of Oxfordshire but doubts he will be employed as part of a conventional IT department again.

"I enjoy the lifestyle because I'm my own boss. I have a level of responsibility that I wouldn't have as an employee and I live and die by what I say and do, and that gives me a great buzz."

"Flexible Working", by Steve Simmons, is published by Kogan Page, pounds 19.50