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The Independent Online

Labour Editor

The number of employers with staff who work from home on visual display units has doubled in two years as part of fundamental and far-reaching changes in working methods.

A study covering nearly 300 companies employing 2 million staff found that eight out of ten organisations employing more than 5,000 people had undergone "major restructuring" in the past 12 months.

Some 97 per cent of respondents with workforces varying from 1 to 190,000 used temporary or fixed-term contracts, "flexi-time" or sub-contracted labour, according to a survey by the Reed employment agency and the Home Office Partnership, a private consultancy.

As Britain recovers from the recession, the pace of change seems to be increasing rather than easing off, the study said.

The report, The Shape of Work to Come, found that 13.6 per cent of organisations now employ "teleworkers" - staff who work from home on screens. In 1993, a Department of Employment survey, Teleworking in Britain, had put the figure at 5 per cent.

Flexible working practices are increasingly widespread. Around 85 per cent of organisations use staff on temporary or fixed-term contracts, 63 per cent use sub-contracted labour, 35 per cent have staff who are home-based and 34 per cent use part-time working for senior staff.

The report says that while the percentage of organisations engaged in restructuring is lower for small firms - 48 per cent of companies with between 1 and 250 staff said they had undergone a revision of business methods - more than 60 per cent of respondents had engaged in restructuring over the past year.

Although the likelihood of change increased with the organisation's size, the proportion was "remarkably consistent" across all the sectors surveyed, ranging from 56 per cent in manufacturing to 70 per cent in central government.

Flexible working was discovered to be particularly strong in both central and local government organisations, a finding that was in contrast to their past bureaucracy.

More than nine out of ten respondents agreed that both the nature of work itself and working practices were changing. Nearly 33 per cent strongly agreed with the statement that new technology prompted changes in working practices, but almost 60 per cent were convinced that it was primarily because of competitive pressures and a new demand for skills.

Alex Reed, chairman of Reed Personnel Services, said that firms should not misuse the flexible workforce as a cheap alternative, avoiding responsibilities for holiday and maternity pay and leaving notice.

"They are missing the point and will be rewarded by lack of commitment. So long as flexible means efficient, rather than cheap, everyone will benefit," he said.

Mr Reed said that global competitive pressures backed by developments in information technology had made the "cost-effective and flexible workforce" the inevitable way forward for British companies."

Edna Murphy, director of the Home Office Partnership, said the challenge for managers was using flexibility to deliver real benefits to individuals as well as organisations. She said new ways of working held the key to competitiveness for British industry.