Working at home grows in popularity

Staff not going into the office can make sense for them and their employer, reports Joanne O'Connell

Billions of people have ditched the commute to the office in favour of working from home - and the number of home-based workers is set to rise dramatically.

According to research due to be published next week, by consumer think-tank the Future Foundation, 8.6 per cent of the work force - 2.5 million people - work from home for one or more days a week.

It expects that number to rise by 200,000 a year for the next four years. By 2020, it reckons that 16 per cent of the working population will be at least partially based at home.

Employers increasingly allow well-paid, high-flying professionals, as well as traditional tele-workers, to work away from the office. The report, commissioned by Brother, the electronics and manufacturing company, also identifies a new type of worker, who is based at the office but e-mails clients from their BlackBerry on the train or makes work-related phone calls from home. Describing them as "freE workers", it says this group accounts for 46 per cent of the work force but will rise to 80 per cent by 2020.

"The question by then will be not who sometimes works at home but who doesn't," says report author William Nelson. "There are positive benefits to skipping the daily commute and increasing productivity by working at home. Highly-skilled workers who are in demand may find their company would rather allow them to work flexibly, rather than lose them."

In a separate report, published recently by the Management Consultancies Association, a third of the 1,200 respondents claimed that remote working is now common in their organisation. However, despite the potential gains for the employer, 93 per cent said it was the employees who were choosing to work away from the office, rather than their employer encouraging them to do so.

It also found that the majority of companies were unwilling to fund the arrangements. Only 40 per cent said that their employer covered the costs of remote working.

The Flexible Working Regulations, which came into force in 2003, provide parents with children under six - or 18 if the child has a disability - with the right to request flexible working arrangements, which may include working from home.

The employment solicitor James Upton, from Hill Dickinson Solicitors, says: "This means an employer has to follow certain procedures to consider their request for flexible working. It doesn't mean they are automatically able to work from home. Neither does it mean that employees without children can't ask their boss to let them work from home."

If you're a valued employee with bags of experience, you're more likely to convince your employer that you can work from home effectively, than if you're fairly junior, only started last month and need constant supervision.

Pick an appropriate time to approach your boss to sell them the idea, advises John Lees, the author of Take Control of Your Career (McGraw-Hill, £12.99). "Ask them when you're doing well, or at an annual review. Don't make it sound like a demand, or threaten to leave. Instead, show the benefits to the company."

In its guide to flexible working, Acas, the independent service aimed at helping organisations improve employee relations, says that the benefits to employers include cost savings on office space, improved employee relations, increased retention of valued employees, higher levels of employee commitment and less unplanned absenteeism or days off due to sickness.

Lees says: "It's also worth pointing out that you'll still attend team meetings, visit clients face to face, and have certain hours when you will be easily contactable."

There are tax implications in working from home. Jonathan Mounsey, senior tax partner at accountant PKF, says: "Check your home does not have a covenant on it that stops you from using it as a business premises. This is more likely to affect you if you're self-employed, or running your own business. The neighbours may complain if clients are visiting, or you are having deliveries."

You need to consider the tax situation regarding office equipment. Many companies will provide you with the basics, a PC or laptop, mobile phone and internet connection, but leave you to sort out desk and chair. Others may give you an allowance to buy furniture. If you need to fork out for equipment, ask the company to reimburse you.

If it pays the costs, the tax situation depends on whether your employer reports these expenses as benefits in kind. If it does, it needs to fill in a P11D form, as tax may need to be paid.

"In many cases, if the expenses are for travel, for example, you won't end up paying tax," says Roy Maugham, a tax partner at accountants UHY Hacker Young. "But you may have to pay tax on equipment that the Inland Revenue doesn't consider necessary simply for your job."

You don't need to pay tax on a computer given to you by your employer, and if you buy it, you can claim 25 per cent of its net value for four years. But if you're using your existing home phone line and broadband connection, it's less likely you can justify them as business expenses, as you're already using them for personal use, says Maugham.

"The Revenue has to be convinced that your employer deems these expenses necessary. This will normally only be the case if your employer actually expects you to work from home in the first place, rather than simply allowing you to," he says.

If you do use the net for home use, then stating that only a percentage of the costs are for business use, can appear more reasonable to the Revenue. It may then tax only on a proportion of the cost.

If you are self-employed, you're often able to claim tax relief on running costs such as ink cartridges and paper and even utilities such as lighting and heating. But if you're still employed, the latter is a particularly hard case to prove.

In fact, stating that part of your home is a business space - and claiming tax relief on the running costs - can be problematic in the long term.

Mounsey says: "When you come to sell it, you could risk losing your principal-private-residence exemption and end up paying Capital Gains Tax on the profits made on the percentage of your home that's used for business. You also risk having to pay commercial rates on bills such as council tax."

Although you work from home, your employer still has a duty to ensure your safety. Your employer should make sure that its insurance extends to you while you are away from the office. Strictly speaking, they should carry out a risk assessment of your facilities at home to check they are suitable.

James Carmody, principal of Reculver Solicitors, says: "For example, if you develop RSI, although you are working from home, arguably your company is in breach of the safe system of working that it is responsible for providing."

Employees who work from home are entitled to the same benefits as their office colleagues.

Carmody says: "You should also carefully check the small print on your own home insurance, to make sure your new office equipment is covered."

Upton adds: "Before you begin your new arrangements, it's important to have them formalised in writing. This can be done as an amendment to your contract of employment and should include details such as your working hours, lunch breaks, and whether the plans are temporary or permanent."

Flexible working has many benefits but as the lines between home and work begin to blur, it's important to have a record of the arrangements.

Justine Neale: 'I'm much more productive now'

Justine Neale used to spend 60 hours a month commuting to London three times a week.

For the remaining two days a week, Justine, 34, who works for BT, was based at her local office in Quorn, Leicestershire, where she was the only member of her team on the premises.

"My boss is in the Netherlands and my colleagues are spread out across the world," says Justine, who is a business-to-business marketing manager, "so it didn't make sense to spend time travelling to the office to do a job I could easily do from home."

She started working from home six years ago, and since then has had two daughters, Mary, three, and Beatrice, who is just one.

"My husband, Andy, who's a senior internetworking consultant, works from home too and since having children, I've dropped my hours to three days a week."

The company gives home-workers a laptop, a phone line, an allowance of £750 to set up a home office and an annual £104 towards heating and lighting costs.

"I'm much more productive at home," says Justine.

"I have two or three audio conferences a day with my colleagues and regularly report to my boss. There are no distractions and cutting out the commute to London has been great."

Tele-working - the facts

The UK has a higher level of people working from home than France or Germany. According to the report, commissioned by Brother, 8.6 per cent of the British workforce regularly works from home, compared to 6.8 per cent in Germany and just 4.6 per cent in France.

Brother predicts that 16.2 per cent of the workforce in the UK will be regular home-workers by 2020. This equates to nearly 5 million people. The report suggests that this figure will rise to 14.9 per cent in Germany and 10.7 per cent in France. More senior, and more highly skilled workers are more likely to work from home.

Women constitute just 36 per cent of the UK's home workers, despite accounting for 47 per cent of the work force. The researchers attribute this to the fact that it's mainly senior managers who work from home, and women are under represented at this level.

One in four workers aged 15-24 are interested in trying tele-working, just over one in four of the 25-34 age group would consider it, and around one in five of the 35-44 age group is interested. This figure drops to just over 10 per cent of the over-65s. From an employer's point of view, an important driver of telework is the management of property costs.

A study by the UK Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors concluded that British business was wasting up to £18bn a year - around 1.5 per cent of GDP - through inefficiency in its use of property. More than a third - £6.5bn - of the estimated savings were thought to be available from "hot-desking" and other new working practices, of which teleworking is one.

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