Home is where the office is

IT IS estimated that anywhere between one and four million people in Britain work at home, and - with the rail strike likely to accelerate the trend - the numbers are rising.

Traditional freelancers and home workers - women assembling clothing or packing envelopes, for instance - will be increasingly outnumbered by 'teleworkers', home-based operatives electronically linked to central computer systems.

Techno-optimists, such as Bill Gates of Microsoft (who lives in a computer-controlled mansion) praise teleworking - its autonomy and flexibility. But one obstacle to the brave new world of the 'virtual office' has not received the attention it should have - the cramped dimensions of the typical British home.

As Andrew James, who publishes Home Run magazine from an office at the top of his house in Chiswick, points out, the person working from home needs, above all, dedicated space. The space should be quiet, well ventilated, private, and safe. 'Sharing the breakfast table is not really satisfactory. You don't want to have to pack and unpack your materials every day,' he says.

But few people have such spare space. Teleworkers in particular are likely to be low- paid employees and live in relatively low-priced housing, where quality standards are falling rather than improving.

Linda Sheridan, at Liverpool University, who with Professor Valerie Karn at Manchester University recently published a study of new British homes for the Rowntree Foundation, believes there are 'tremendous problems involved with home working because of the inadequacy of British homes.' British houses are now smaller than houses in any other country in Europe. New housing association houses are 'of lower amenity value than low-rise housing built by councils in the 1960s and 1970s' - not a flattering comparison - and privately built houses follow a similar trend.

The outlook for a future in which millions of British employees work from their homes is therefore not particularly good. Although various laws provide guidelines on minimum standards for space and amenities, these are very basic (11 cubic metres per person in an office for instance).

As Ann Goodwin, at the Institute of Environmental Health Officers, says: 'What local authority has the resources to check on relatively low-risk workplaces? Dangerous activities, such as the handling of chemicals and the use of machines have to take precedence.' And which local authority has the resources to grapple with giant corporations (who as employers are legally responsible for the safety of employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act) to enforce standards over thousands of individual workplaces?

Some people are already thinking of ways around the space problem. A contributor to Home Run magazine recommended using a garden shed as an office, although this only suits people with gardens. US firm Rubbermaid is aiming a foldaway workstation specifically at space-starved teleworkers. Mike Gowen, UK chief executive, admitted demand was moderate at present. But he added: 'There is a huge potential. People don't have the space at home to make an office and need something that can be folded up and put away.'

So while optimists dream of the flexible worker in his own electronic castle, the reality may be more prosaic - someone sitting in a corner of the living room tapping away on the keyboard, trying desperately to ignore the distracting noise and activity all around.

(Photograph omitted)