Out of sight, but not out of mind

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The unions, with their blue-collar, smokestack image, may not be the most obvious allies of teleworkers, who are out of their reach and control, having removed themselves from the petty politics and rigid hierarchy of the workplace. But the recen t conference "Working on the Infobahn: the Labour Movement in Manchester" indicates that unions are now feeling obliged to take teleworkers on board.

The benefits of teleworking are usually discussed in the context of professional people: consultants, writers, designers or accountants. But as the technology falls in price, teleworking is being seen in lower-paid, clerical jobs.

Telephone inquiries or data-processing for large organisations can be handled by staff working from home - and unions are keen to ensure they can still speak for members who have taken this route. Some see a very fine line separating teleworking and moretraditional piece-working, notorious for its low hourly rates and poor conditions.

Unions with experience of teleworking, such as the banking union (Bifu) or Manufacturing, Science and Finance union (MSF), say an important part of negotiations for teleworking clerical staff is ensuring that they stay on the company's payroll, keeping the same pension rights, holiday pay and benefits as office-based workers.

Teleworkers should be free to return to office-based work without suffering a change in their promotion prospects and should benefit from a well-resourced and carefully managed work programme if they are not to feel cut off from their teams.

Digital, a computer company regarded as a teleworking pioneer, offers employees a handbook on flexible working and a one-day training course, covering issues from security to the use of stationery. Managers also need guidance, Stephen Jupp, Digital's practice manager for flexible working, says.

Chris Ridgewell, manager of flexible working applications at Mercury Communications, has found that a help desk for remote staff alleviates many problems and advises the setting up of pilot schemes to identify potential pitfalls. Trust on both sides is vital.

The technology on which teleworking depends may bring its own problems. Research by the department of psychology at Leeds University for the European Commission showed that people working in offices thought isolation from colleagues would be the worst aspect of teleworking; in fact, teleworkers themselves felt obtaining technical support or back-up for equipment was a greater problem.

The unions' answer is to ensure access to the appropriate technology and training. In the case of BT's experiment, directory inquiries staff working from home in Inverness obtained, with the help of union representatives, video-conferencing facilities sothey could keep in touch with office-based colleagues.

But dependence on technology has its drawbacks; equipment problems or ringing technical support hotlines wastes time. At Digital, many remote workers use a simple terminal, a modem and a business phone line. "It is a people-based process," Mr Jupp says. "The technology helps but is not critical."

There are also health and safety considerations. For teleworkers who are employees, VDU regulations still apply for workstations used at home. This may not always be to everybody's liking. Dr Sylvie Collins, of the Leeds University team, cites the example of the Netherlands, where employers must inspect teleworking staff's homes.

"People said they wanted to work on the kitchen table," Dr Collins explains. "but some were not allowed to do that. There is a balance to be found there between Big Brother and health and safety problems."

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